CWA: 20,000 forced to strike due to AT&T refusal to bargain
Striking AT&T workers in Broward County, Florida. | CWA Facebook

ATLANTA—AT&T management’s labor law-breaking – specifically its refusal to bargain a new contract – forced 20,000 Communications Workers members toiling for AT&T Southeast to strike at midnight on August 23.

And hundreds more, in the Miami area, preceded their colleagues by a day. They had to strike over separate law-breaking – formally called unfair labor practices – charges of illegal discipline threats.

CWA said the big problem in the talks is that AT&T Southeast bargainers “do not have real authority to make proposals or to reach an agreement with us.” Instead, the company’s bargaining team always had to run back to AT&T top management, including CEO Randall Stephenson.

That means the firm’s negotiators could not bargain in good faith. The old contract expired on August 3.

Some 20,000 technicians, customer service representatives and others who install, maintain and support AT&T’s residential and business wireline telecommunications network in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee had to walk.

“In 2015, on the first day of contract negotiations with AT&T, Vice-President (Richard) Honeycutt, in his opening statement emphasized two words: Responsibility and respect,” the union said. Honeycutt’s Atlanta-based CWA District 3 covers the southeastern states.

“Four years later, in 2019, we have learned something about respect from AT&T. When we asked for respect from AT&T, one thing we meant was the company sent someone to the bargaining table who was there to make a deal — a deal for the benefit of our members and for the company we work for.”

“Unfortunately, AT&T does not understand respect to mean that they have an obligation to bargain in good faith. AT&T does not understand CWA is prepared to bargain and is prepared to make a deal that benefits our members and AT&T. It turns out that for over three months, we have been bargaining with people who do not have the real authority to make proposals or to reach an agreement with us.”

“AT&T also changed to rules of the game by changing our agreement about how we meet and bargain. As a result, CWA was forced to file unfair labor practice charges against AT&T for bargaining in bad faith.”

“The million-dollar executives in Dallas” – AT&T headquarters – “and their so-called ‘labor relations experts,’ sent to the bargaining table without the authority to make a decision, all had to find out the hard way what their employees will do when they have been disrespected.”

The union drew immediate support from the longest-tenured pro-union Democratic presidential primary contender, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt. On the way to address a big pro-Sanders crowd at the Kentucky State Fair, Sanders detoured to walk the picket line with and address the CWA members marching in front of AT&T Southeast’s Louisville, Kent., office.

“Stop the greed, treat your workers with respect and dignity. They are the folks that make you the money,” Sen. Sanders said to huge applause. “Sit down at the negotiation table and to bargain for a fair and decent contract with employees. And stop sending jobs abroad.”

That outsourcing, especially of call center jobs, is a big issue between CWA and AT&T and not just in the Southeast. When the GOP congressional majority jammed through its $1.2 trillion tax cut for corporations and the rich – a cut which hugely benefited AT&T – company CEO Stephenson said the firm would use $1 billion of the tax cut cash to create 7,000 more U.S. jobs.

Instead, Stephenson added those benefits to the firm’s prior profits, while shutting call centers around the U.S. and exporting those jobs to Mexico.

Striking AT&T workers in Chapel Hill, N.C. | CWA Facebook

“The company received a $21 billion windfall from the tax bill and is projecting $3 billion in annual tax savings going forward, but an analysis by CWA based on AT&T’s own quarterly reports show that AT&T has cut over 23,000 jobs since the tax cut passed. Just before Fathers’ Day weekend, AT&T announced job cuts for nearly 2,000 workers, including 911 in the Southeast,” the union points out.

“If you were to visit any work center or call center across District 3, you would discover that your employees, our members, are not treated with the respect they have earned and deserve,” Honeycutt told company bargainers in opening remarks. “As far as mutual responsibility, this has unfortunately become a one-way street.”

The union is “demanding AT&T to show our hard-working members the respect and loyalty they deserve. This can be done through better wages, benefits, improved work rules, and job security. Give work to your employees – CWA members – not the employees of other companies,” he added, referring to the outsourced call center jobs.

Meanwhile, the CWA AT&T workers in South Florida were forced to strike at 7 am on August 22 over their own local boss’s labor law-breaking.

CWA Local 3121 in Hialeah, CWA Local 3120 in Broward County and CWA Local 3122, which covers an area stretching from North Miami Beach to Key West, said their area bosses engaged in unfair labor practices, too, separate from the law-breaking at the main bargaining table.

The local unions said bosses threatened to discipline workers and prevented “protected concerted activities” by AT&T workers – actions labor law protects. One violation: Company threats to discipline members for wearing CWA memorabilia or insignia.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.