As Some AT&T Unions Strike, Others “Scab”

Mike Elk

CWA members from across California rally outside of the State Capitol in Sacramento, protesting what they believe is unfair bargaining by AT&T.

On Tues­day, 20,000 AT&T work­ers in Cal­i­for­nia, Con­necti­cut and Neva­da went out on a two-day strike to protest unfair bar­gain­ing by AT&T.

The strik­ing mem­bers of West Coast-based Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Work­ers of Amer­i­ca Dis­trict 9 and Con­necti­cut-based CWA Local 1298 claim that the com­pa­ny has giv­en them a take-or-leave-it con­tract with con­ces­sions that they sim­ply can­not take. Under AT&T’s terms, a new employ­ee will pay 32 per­cent of their [health care] pre­mi­um costs, plus a deductible of $1,000,” says CWA Local 1298 Pres­i­dent Bill Hen­der­son. A new employ­ee mak­ing $18 an hour can­not afford that. He would be work­ing to pay for his health care, and our feel­ing is that’s a bad contract.”

The locals are also upset that in May, AT&T began shift­ing work from busi­ness tech­ni­cians – who make $30-$35 an hour – to appren­tice tech­ni­cians, who make $18-$22 an hour and are eas­i­er to fire.

What’s sur­pris­ing about the strikes is the lack of sol­i­dar­i­ty from oth­er CWA dis­tricts. CWA mem­bers at AT&T call cen­ters in Dis­trict 4 in the Mid­west vol­un­tar­i­ly took over­time to com­pen­sate for the missed work of those on strike.

Here we have a sit­u­a­tion where the same union is scab­bing on itself. It’s sort of sur­re­al,” says Kier­an Knut­son, a call cen­ter work­er in Min­neapo­lis and a mem­ber of CWA Local 725.

CWA rep­re­sents over 150,000 AT&T work­ers across the coun­try. How­ev­er, instead of a sin­gle nation­al con­tract, the union must nego­ti­ate about a dozen dif­fer­ent ones. There are nine region­al bar­gain­ing units based on the tele­phone com­pa­nies that were union­ized before merg­ing into AT&T. On top of that, wire­less AT&T work­ers have their own units.

When CWA nego­ti­ates these var­i­ous con­tracts, they try to stick to a com­mon expi­ra­tion date to increase their bar­gain­ing clout and make a col­lec­tive strike pos­si­ble. In the­o­ry, no dis­trict will sign a new con­tract until all dis­tricts have agreed to a deal.

But dur­ing the last round of con­tract talks, three years ago, some CWA dis­tricts set­tled for con­ces­sion­ary con­tracts with­out get­ting the approval of oth­er dis­tricts. This year, it appears that the same thing is hap­pen­ing. On July 20, while some AT&T work­ers in were gear­ing up for a strike, Dis­trict 4 – based in Ohio, Indi­ana, Wis­con­sin, Illi­nois, and Michi­gan – cut a sep­a­rate deal with AT&T.

AT&T has a divide and con­quer pol­i­cy. They work one group against the oth­er and that’s not a good thing for a nation­al union,” says Hen­der­son. They offered us the same set­tle­ments that Dis­trict 4 agreed to and we said no. Shame on Dis­trict 4 and those oth­er peo­ple who took such a lousy deal because they did­n’t have to. When they set the bar so low, it just does­n’t hurt their mem­bers, it hurts all of the union.”

How­ev­er, Jer­ry Scha­eff, Admin­is­tra­tive Direc­tor of CWA Dis­trict 4, says that they were sim­ply look­ing out for their own mem­bers when they took the deal. The Mid­west con­tract meet the needs of the Mid­west work­ers,” says Scha­eff. We con­tin­ue to sup­port [the oth­er CWA unions] any way we can. Our issues is employ­ment secu­ri­ty and we feel we got a good deal. Who­ev­er gets done first usu­al­ly gets beat up by oth­ers, but that’s just the way it is.”

That’s a lie. Dis­trict 4 did­n’t get any job secu­ri­ty,” says CWA Local 1298 Pres­i­dent Bill Hen­der­son. They got offered the things we already have in our con­tract because we fought hard­er in our con­tract last time. The biggest prob­lem we have with Dis­trict 4 is that we are on strike and they are sign­ing up for over­time and they are direct­ing calls to the Mid­west. And they got nobody in their union telling them not to do it.”

In oth­er CWA bar­gain­ing units that have already ten­ta­tive agree­ments, there has been lit­tle attempt to coor­di­nate sol­i­dar­i­ty activ­i­ties with those still out strug­gling for con­tracts, says Min­neso­ta-based Kier­an Knut­son, whose CWA Local 7520, cov­ered by the lega­cy t” con­tract has reached a ten­ta­tive deal with AT&T. Our dis­trict is at work while these guys are strik­ing. I only found out about the strike from AT&T in an email about updates on nego­ti­a­tions,” says Knutson.

Anoth­er issue caus­ing con­tention with­in the union is the fed­er­al lob­by­ing sup­port CWA has pro­vid­ed for AT&T’s con­tro­ver­sial planned merg­er with T‑Mobile.

Every­one at the union who worked on the T‑Mobile deal should be ashamed of them­selves. Now ATT is screw­ing them at the bar­gain­ing table. What the hell is going on?” says Henderson.

CWA Pres­i­dent Lar­ry Cohen and CWA Vice Pres­i­dent for Tech­nol­o­gy and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Ralph Maly did not respond to request for com­ment on this story.

Some CWA mem­bers say that the missed oppor­tu­ni­ty for sol­i­dar­i­ty and lever­age in AT&T nego­ti­a­tions has not only hurt AT&T work­ers, but also hurt CWA’s nego­ti­a­tions with Ver­i­zon. After a three-week strike last August, Ver­i­zon employ­ees have been work­ing with­out a con­tract for a year.

Ver­i­zon has men­tioned at the table that CWA has agreed to pre­mi­ums and cer­tain con­ces­sions at AT&T,” says New Eng­land-based CWA Local 1400 Pres­i­dent Don Tremen­tozzi, a mem­ber of the bar­gain­ing team that has been locked in tense nego­ti­a­tions with Ver­i­zon for the last 14 months.

As a result of the Ver­i­zon dead­lock, locals at both CWA and IBEW have tak­en strike autho­riza­tion votes this week and have been begun to make strike assign­ments. The Fed­er­al Medi­a­tion Ser­vice has instruct­ed Ver­i­zon to con­tin­ue bar­gain­ing with IBEW-CWA until Wednes­day, August 15. If the com­pa­ny seeks to impose the cur­rent terms, Tremen­tozzi puts the odds of a strike by 45,000 Ver­i­zon work­ers in the North­east at 6040.”

I think the com­pa­ny does­n’t think we have the balls to strike,” says Tremen­tozzi, But I think we would rather try in the street oth­er than tak­ing those imposed conditions.”

Hen­der­son and oth­er CWA reform­ers are opti­mistic that their mil­i­tan­cy will inspire rank-and-file work­ers in oth­er regions to fight against con­ces­sions. In Min­neso­ta, Kier­an Knus­ton is lead­ing a Vote No” cam­paign against his union’s ten­ta­tive agree­ment. There are some sig­nif­i­cant con­ces­sions. My month­ly med­ical cost is going to more than dou­ble over the life of the contract.”

The only way to make gains is to have a cred­i­ble threat of a strike. In order to have a suc­cess­ful strike, you have to uni­ty among the work­ing groups,” says Knut­son. I think it’s impor­tant that work­ers stand with folks that are out on strike and that we don’t accept these ten­ta­tive agreements.”

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Work­ing In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is cur­rent­ly a labor reporter at Politico.
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