Rank-and-File Union Members Are Leading Another Massive Strike. This Time It’s AT&T Workers.

Rebecca Burns June 5, 2018

AT&T workers are now in their sixth day of a rank-and-file-led strike across the Midwest. (CWA Local 4900/Facebook)

Thou­sands of AT&T employ­ees across the Mid­west are enter­ing the sixth day of a rare, rank-and-file-led work stop­page over alleged unfair labor prac­tices. The union rep­re­sent­ing them, Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (CWA) Dis­trict 4, has been in con­tract nego­ti­a­tions with AT&T since March. While mem­bers vot­ed over­whelm­ing­ly in April to autho­rize a strike if nec­es­sary, the deci­sion to walk off the job last week was not coor­di­nat­ed by union lead­er­ship or sub­ject to an offi­cial vote.

Instead, the union says that the action was a spon­ta­neous one result­ing from wide­spread anger at the com­pa­ny. In recent weeks, the union alleges that AT&T has tried to bypass its elect­ed bar­gain­ing team by e‑mailing thou­sands of work­ers direct­ly. A May 22 e‑mail out­lined what the com­pa­ny termed a final offer” and encour­aged employ­ees to urge CWA lead­er­ship to pro­vide you with an oppor­tu­ni­ty to vote for it.”

CWA filed unfair labor prac­tice charges against AT&T, alleg­ing that this mes­sage con­sti­tutes bad-faith bar­gain­ing and direct deal­ing” that vio­lates the company’s duty to nego­ti­ate with the union as work­ers’ sole col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tive. The charges are still pending.

But in the mean­time, the com­pa­ny sent three more e‑mails, and work­ers’ frus­tra­tion reached a boil­ing point, accord­ing to the union. Resent­ment had already been bub­bling up over the AT&T’s deci­sion to con­duct more than 1,000 lay­offs soon after receiv­ing a wind­fall from the pas­sage of fed­er­al tax reform. AT&T CEO Ran­dall Stephen­son was a promi­nent backer of the tax law, which he said would allow the com­pa­ny to cre­ate 7,000 jobs. 

Not only were the e‑mails from the com­pa­ny dis­re­spect­ful,” says Beth Dubree, sec­re­tary trea­sur­er of CWA Local 4900 in Indi­ana, they didn’t even real­ly dis­cuss job secu­ri­ty.” Through­out last week, she says, Our mem­bers kept call­ing, want­i­ng to know why the com­pa­ny was doing this.” 

Work stop­pages that protest ille­gal behav­ior by employ­ers are gen­er­al­ly con­sid­ered pro­tect­ed activ­i­ty under fed­er­al labor law, and so-called unfair labor prac­tice strikes are often an impor­tant com­po­nent of union strat­e­gy. But spon­ta­neous, rank-and-file-led walk­outs that cross state and occu­pa­tion­al lines are almost unheard of in recent years. CWA Dis­trict 4 rep­re­sents some 9,500 AT&T tech­ni­cians, call cen­ter rep­re­sen­ta­tives and oth­er per­son­nel across Illi­nois, Indi­ana, Michi­gan, Ohio and Wis­con­sin. Thou­sands of work­ers in every state even­tu­al­ly took part, but the walk­out start­ed in Indiana. 

In These Times spoke to sev­er­al local elect­ed offi­cials and mem­bers about how the strike picked up momentum.

Ear­ly Thurs­day morn­ing, one group of tech­ni­cians in Local 4900 decid­ed that they had had enough” and walked off the job before their 7:00 a.m. shift, accord­ing to Dubree. Thanks to a group text chat, the entire local knew about it by 7:30,” she says. Most work­ers’ shifts start­ed at 8:00 a.m., and by that time, no one went to work.” 

It was amaz­ing how fast it spread,” says Dubree. There was­n’t even a hesitation.” 

Word trav­eled quick­ly to oth­er states with the aid of a closed Face­book group to coor­di­nate mobi­liza­tion across the dis­trict. Jim Simons, exec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of Michigan’s CWA Local 4009 and a 28-year AT&T employ­ee, said that he began receiv­ing calls with news of the Indi­ana walk­out at 8:00 a.m. The next thing I know, all of Ohio is out,” he says. At 1:00 p.m., I got the call that two of my garages had walked out.” Soon after, most of the local’s more than 800 mem­bers joined in. 

Simons says that work­ers in his local were already livid about lay­offs and out­sourc­ing. AT&T was among the com­pa­nies praised by Pres­i­dent Trump for giv­ing out $1,000 dol­lar bonus­es to employ­ees after the pas­sage of tax reform. But accord­ing to CWA, the com­pa­ny also laid off more than 1,500 employ­ees in Decem­ber. When you do the math, those bonus­es were paid for by the lay­offs,” says Simons. Some work­ers in his local donat­ed their bonus­es to mem­bers who lost their jobs. 

AT&T did not imme­di­ate­ly respond to a request for com­ment on the walk­out, but the com­pa­ny has released a state­ment that reads, We’re offer­ing a gen­er­ous pack­age includ­ing annu­al wage increas­es, con­tin­u­a­tion of job secu­ri­ty pro­vi­sions that are vir­tu­al­ly unheard of in the U.S., and com­pre­hen­sive health care and retire­ment ben­e­fits. In addi­tion, the offer includes a com­mit­ment to hire 1,000 peo­ple in the region. All employ­ees cov­ered by the offer would be bet­ter off.”

But in April, CWA released a report charg­ing that in the past sev­en years, AT&T has laid off more than 16,000 call cen­ter work­ers nation­wide, ship­ping jobs to low­er-pay­ing call cen­ters over­seas. Last year, AT&T and oth­er big com­pa­nies boast­ed that tax reform would allow them to cre­ate more jobs in the Unit­ed States, and CWA is among sev­er­al unions now push­ing the com­pa­nies in bar­gain­ing to reveal whether they plan to fol­low through. In its fourth-quar­ter 2017 finan­cials, AT&T said that tax reform helped boost the quar­ter’s net income to $19 bil­lion, com­pared to $2.4 bil­lion in the same peri­od a year before. 

Anger over the tax cuts was front and cen­ter at a demon­stra­tion in Chica­go this spring, where thou­sands of mem­bers gath­ered at AT&T head­quar­ters to ral­ly for a con­tract. Dur­ing the ral­ly, some­one in the build­ing put a sign in the win­dow that read, No one cares,” accord­ing to Simons. You put all that togeth­er, and peo­ple were ready” to strike, he says. 

As of Tues­day, most mem­bers in Wis­con­sin and Illi­nois have returned to work, but thou­sands in Michi­gan, Ohio and all of Indi­ana remain on strike, accord­ing to the union.

Tim Strong, pres­i­dent of CWA Local 4900 and a mem­ber of the Dis­trict 4 bar­gain­ing team, also cred­its the wave of teacher strikes this year in inspir­ing mem­bers to walk out. Bar­gain­ing with AT&T is con­tin­u­ing this week over key issues includ­ing job secu­ri­ty, use of con­trac­tors and health­care costs, he says. 

In the mean­time, mem­bers have pulled off the longest work stop­page their union has seen since 1989. I think it’s a reflec­tion of the move­ment in this coun­try — that you saw teach­ers who in many cas­es don’t even have col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights going on strike,” says Strong. And now 9,000 mem­bers decid­ed to take this leap of faith and fight.”

In These Times staff is rep­re­sent­ed by the News­Guild-CWA. The Guild has no role in edi­to­r­i­al content.

Rebec­ca Burns is an award-win­ning inves­tiga­tive reporter whose work has appeared in The Baf­fler, the Chica­go Read­er, The Inter­cept and oth­er out­lets. She is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @rejburns.
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