Workers at AT&T Mobility Wage Largest-Ever Contract Mobilization

Dan DiMaggio March 3, 2017

While other wireless companies are largely non-union, CWA represents 45,000 AT&T wireless employees, thanks to bargain-to-organize agreements that allowed for card-check neutrality or quick union elections. (Unity at AT&T Mobility/ Facebook)

This arti­cle was first post­ed by Labor Notes.

AT&T Mobil­i­ty work­ers are wag­ing their largest-ever con­tract mobi­liza­tion. In retail stores and call cen­ters across the coun­try they’re sport­ing We Demand Good Jobs” but­tons, pick­et­ing on their days off, plas­ter­ing union fly­ers on their lock­ers, and blow­ing up Face­book with pic­tures of their activ­i­ties. These actions are help­ing knit togeth­er a sense of sol­i­dar­i­ty among 21,000 union mem­bers dis­persed through­out 36 states.

They’ve tak­en the career out of this job,” says Heather Train­or of Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers (CWA) Local 1101 in New York City. Now they just want to put a body in the store to make them mon­ey. They’ve for­got­ten that we’re human beings.”

Mobil­i­ty is AT&T’s wire­less divi­sion. Work­ers here sell phones and help with ser­vice ques­tions at retail stores, pro­vide tech and billing sup­port in call cen­ters, and build and repair the company’s wire­less infrastructure.

Train­or, now a busi­ness agent with the local, start­ed work­ing in retail at AT&T Mobil­i­ty 15 years ago, when it was still Cin­gu­lar. I was a sin­gle moth­er,” she said, and this was a good-pay­ing job, with fair wages, fair com­mis­sions, and good ben­e­fits. I could even afford to go down to the Jer­sey Shore once a year on vacation.

But now they’re mak­ing us work more and sell more and make less. Com­mis­sions are cut in half, we can’t afford the med­ical, and we can’t afford to go on vacation.”

Their con­tract, known as the Orange Con­tract” thanks to the col­or of the cov­er, was set to expire Feb­ru­ary 11, but the com­pa­ny and union agreed to an exten­sion, which can be can­celed with 72 hours’ notice from either side. In Feb­ru­ary, work­ers vot­ed 93 per­cent yes to autho­rize a strike if necessary.

While oth­er wire­less com­pa­nies are large­ly non-union, CWA rep­re­sents 45,000 AT&T wire­less employ­ees, thanks to bar­gain-to-orga­nize agree­ments that allowed for card-check neu­tral­i­ty or quick union elec­tions. At Ver­i­zon Wire­less, CWA rep­re­sents a group of 100 tech­ni­cians in New York and work­ers at the company’s Brook­lyn retail stores, who struck along­side 39,000 wire­line work­ers last spring. The union also has an ongo­ing minor­i­ty-union cam­paign at T‑Mobile.

Out­sourc­ing battle

Just like at Ver­i­zon, the union is fight­ing to halt AT&T’s off­shoring of call cen­ter jobs. It’s also fight­ing the growth of nonunion autho­rized retail­ers” in place of cor­po­rate-owned retail stores.

Just this past month, in Jan­u­ary, they closed down one of our mall loca­tions,” said Jim Mor­ris, who works in sales sup­port at a Mobil­i­ty store in Carmel, Indi­ana. An autho­rized deal­er took its place.

Autho­rized retail­ers are noto­ri­ous­ly short-staffed and pay much low­er wages, putting even greater pres­sure on work­ers there to focus on sales, with much less over­sight of their practices.

Adding insult to injury, the pro­lif­er­a­tion of this type of store adds to the work­load of union mem­bers at cor­po­rate loca­tions. They keep refer­ring cus­tomers to our store after mak­ing a sale, and we have to fix every­thing they do wrong,” says Yese­nia Gon­za­lez, who’s worked for six years at a Mobil­i­ty store in Orange, California.

Changes to the com­mis­sion pol­i­cy also have work­ers fired up. Last year AT&T Mobil­i­ty put a cap on the com­mis­sion work­ers can earn, though work­ers say the new com­mis­sion struc­ture pays them so much less for the same amount of work that it’s impos­si­ble to even reach the cap.

I haven’t met a retail sales con­sul­tant who made more last year than the pre­vi­ous year,” says Gon­za­lez, one of four Local 9510 area stew­ards cov­er­ing 26 Mobil­i­ty stores. She says many work­ers are mak­ing thou­sands of dol­lars less than they did in pri­or years.

It’s hard work­ing for a com­pa­ny when you don’t know how much you’re going to make every month,” Gon­za­lez says.

Mean­while in the call cen­ters, work­ers face con­stant­ly shift­ing bench­marks. They’re mak­ing it very hard to reach a bonus at the end of the month,” says Pat­ty Shaw, a call cen­ter work­er and mem­ber of Local 4900 in Evans­ville, Indi­ana. Her call cen­ter han­dles iPhone advanced tech sup­port. Since she start­ed there a lit­tle over two years ago, Shaw says, the com­pa­ny has changed the way it cal­cu­lates eli­gi­bil­i­ty for bonus­es three times.

AT&T made $13 bil­lion in prof­its in 2016, while in 2015 CEO Ran­dall Stephen­son raked in $25 mil­lion in total com­pen­sa­tion; his haul for 2016 has yet to be revealed. The com­pa­ny con­trols 30 per­cent of the U.S. wire­less sub­scriber mar­ket, putting it at num­ber two behind Ver­i­zon. And AT&T just keeps grow­ing — after gob­bling up DirecTV in a $67 bil­lion merg­er in 2015, it’s now await­ing reg­u­la­to­ry approval to buy enter­tain­ment giant Time Warn­er for $85 billion.

Don’t get sick

Mobil­i­ty work­ers across the board are indig­nant at a new atten­dance pol­i­cy rolled out last year. Work­ers are fired if they accu­mu­late eight points” in a 12-month peri­od. They get one point for every day they’re out sick, unless their absence qual­i­fies under the Fam­i­ly Med­ical Leave Act.

Our atten­dance pol­i­cy is atro­cious,” says Mor­ris. Any com­mon ill­ness, flu, or cold — a cou­ple of those a year and you can get fired. Peo­ple do one of two things: they get fed up with this stuff and get anoth­er job, or you’ll come to work sick and get every­body else sick.”

Mor­ris knows a thing or two about the atten­dance pol­i­cy. He’s been with the com­pa­ny for 25 years, and was once a man­ag­er in the store he now works in. When I was a man­ag­er I had to tell peo­ple that if they were going to be sick, we couldn’t have them work­ing here,” he said.

AT&T insists it doesn’t have to bar­gain over changes to com­mis­sions or the atten­dance pol­i­cy, since those issues are only cov­ered in let­ters of agree­ment — with broad, man­age­ment-friend­ly lan­guage — append­ed to the con­tract. That’s some­thing work­ers would like to change in this round of negotiations.

The union is also fight­ing com­pa­ny pro­pos­als to force mem­bers to pay for 32 per­cent of their med­ical ben­e­fits by 2021 and to stop pay­ing work­ers for the first day they miss dur­ing any illness.

Mobi­liza­tion

The major­i­ty of the 21,000 Mobil­i­ty work­ers are employed at retail stores, mak­ing this one of the largest union­ized retail work­forces in the coun­try. It’s a stark­ly dif­fer­ent group than the wire­line work­ers who’ve tra­di­tion­al­ly made up the bulk of CWA’s tele­com members.

The typ­i­cal retail store has around a dozen union mem­bers, and they’re nev­er all there at the same time. Garages or call cen­ters, mean­while, often have hun­dreds of work­ers on the same shift. Retail work­ers also tend to be younger, with much high­er turnover.

Embrac­ing these chal­lenges, CWA has put more resources than ever before into inter­nal orga­niz­ing of its Mobil­i­ty mem­ber­ship. We did what the com­pa­ny didn’t want us to do,” Train­or says, which is to edu­cate a younger work­force and tell them they have rights.”

In 2014 the union launched Uni­ty at Mobil­i­ty” class­es, two six-hour ses­sions in which thou­sands of mem­bers have learned about their rights on the job, the his­to­ry of the labor bat­tles in tele­com, and how to get more active in the union, includ­ing becom­ing a stew­ard or a con­tact in a store.

We nev­er had this kind of rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Mobil­i­ty,” says Train­or, who was the sole chief stew­ard for 1101’s 1,500 Mobil­i­ty mem­bers a decade ago. Now we have 10 chief stew­ards and 100 stew­ards, plus a whole exec­u­tive board that is vis­it­ing stores and call cen­ters and doing a lot of mobi­liz­ing work.”

The union is also work­ing to unite Mobil­i­ty work­ers from across the coun­try. Dur­ing this round of nego­ti­a­tions CWA has brought hun­dreds of mem­bers togeth­er for nation­al train­ings. It’s been post­ing mobi­liza­tion snap­shots on its Uni­ty at AT&T Mobil­i­ty Face­book page. And on the eve of the con­tract expi­ra­tion date in Feb­ru­ary, CWA held ral­lies in front of dozens of Mobil­i­ty stores, and thou­sands of work­ers called their area man­agers to demand a good contract.

Good jobs

In Tridel­phia, West Vir­ginia, Local 2006 bought plas­tic table­cloths in CWA’s trade­mark red, which mem­bers are putting as back­drops at their work­sta­tions. The local rep­re­sents 160 call cen­ter work­ers who pro­vide Android tech sup­port, plus work­ers in three Mobil­i­ty stores.

There’s a lot of peo­ple that are scared about the call cen­ter clos­ing down, and jobs going over­seas,” says Local 2006 Pres­i­dent Ann Vogler, who’s worked at the call cen­ter for nine years. Around here there’s the coal mines, but there’s been so many lay­offs. Work­ing at this call cen­ter has giv­en peo­ple the abil­i­ty to sup­port their fam­i­lies — and there’s a lot of peo­ple who work in that call cen­ter whose income is the only income for their family.”

Nine­ty-five per­cent of the local’s call cen­ter mem­bers wore black on the first day of bar­gain­ing. That day the man­agers went into a meet­ing, and when they were in the meet­ing, we went around and put black stream­ers around their offices,” says Vogler.

To show they were tired of get­ting screwed, the work­ers put a bot­tle of KY Jel­ly on the area manager’s desk — along with some black con­fet­ti on his desk and red bal­loons in his office for good measure.

Accord­ing to the union, AT&T has elim­i­nat­ed 8,000 call cen­ter jobs since 2011. Many of those jobs have been sent to the Domini­can Repub­lic, El Sal­vador, Mex­i­co, and the Philip­pines. The lat­ter is now the call cen­ter cap­i­tal of the world, with 1.2 mil­lion workers.

A CWA del­e­ga­tion vis­it­ed the Philip­pines dur­ing the Ver­i­zon strike, after call cen­ter work­ers there reached out to the union through its Stand Up to Ver­i­zon Face­book page. Fil­ipino work­ers at a cou­ple of Ver­i­zon con­trac­tors orga­nized a slow­down and over­time boy­cott dur­ing the strike.

CWA has con­tin­ued to sup­port call cen­ter orga­niz­ing in the Philip­pines and oth­er coun­tries. After an AT&T ven­dor in the Domini­can Repub­lic threat­ened to fire activist Oliv­er Ben­son, the union mobi­lized mem­bers and sup­port­ers to share sol­i­dar­i­ty mes­sages on Face­book and Twit­ter the day the ven­dor, Teleper­for­mance, held its share­hold­er meet­ing. Ben­son had been speak­ing out on social media about how AT&T and Ver­i­zon have used out­sourc­ing to attack work­ers’ rights.

The Ver­i­zon exam­ple had the same effect on AT&T call cen­ter work­ers in West Vir­ginia as it did on work­ers halfway around the world. We had about 10 peo­ple who would go over and pick­et out in front of the Ver­i­zon store dur­ing the strike,” Vogler said. I think it inspired them a lot to get involved.”

Time will tell whether AT&T work­ers will be forced to go down the same road as their Ver­i­zon broth­ers and sisters.

Full dis­clo­sure: In These Times staff are mem­bers of the Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Work­ers of Amer­i­ca, and the union is a spon­sor of the mag­a­zine. Spon­sors play no role in edi­to­r­i­al content.

Dan DiMag­gio is an assis­tant edi­tor at Labor Notes
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