Strike: Here’s Why Tens of Thousands of AT&T Workers Just Walked Off the Job

It’s just the latest major labor action to roil the telecom industry.

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May 19 2017, 7:38pm

An AT&T retail worker explains why he's going on strike. Image: CWA/YouTube

Tens of thousands of fed-up AT&T workers across the country walked off the job on Friday afternoon in one of the biggest labor actions in years, after union and management representatives failed to reach a deal on new employee contracts.

The Communications Workers of America (CWA) union said the three-day strike affects more than 20,000 AT&T Mobility employees across the country, including technicians, call-center workers, and retail employees. Thousands more workers in the company's landline and DirecTV divisions in California, Nevada and Connecticut also joined the strike.

For months, CWA has been working to negotiate new contracts for AT&T workers. But the telecom giant's management has refused to offer satisfactory improvements to employee benefits, wages, and job security guarantees, according to the union, which says that as many as 40,000 workers in total may participate in the labor action. (Click here for live footage from the picket line in New York City.)

CWA is asking for wage increases beyond the 2 percent that AT&T is offering, as well as a pledge not to increase employee healthcare contributions. AT&T workers are also upset about the telecom giant's continued practice of offshoring call-center jobs, and outsourcing retail operations to third-party dealers.

"We're walking off the job today because AT&T has every means available to support its core workforce and the customers who help make them $1 billion a month in profits, but chooses to undercut us at every turn," James Stiffey, an AT&T wireless worker from Pittsburgh, said in a statement distributed by the union. "As a retail worker, I know that my store and many others across the country could close and disrupt service, but our strike is about demanding conditions that allow us to provide better service for customers too."

CWA officials, who point out that AT&T rakes in about $1 billion per month in profits, want the telecom giant to invest more in its core wireless business. Over the last year, AT&T booked nearly $50 billion in net profit on revenue of $163 billion. In 2016, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson made $28.4 million in executive compensation.

"America is economically out of whack, and everyone knows it," Dan Cantor, National Director of the Working Families Party, a progressive political organization, told Motherboard. "This strike is about ordinary working people saying 'enough is enough.' AT&T's unwillingness to treat its workers fairly is a disgrace. We are proud that their employees are standing up against what can only be described as corporate greed and arrogance."

This is the first time that AT&T Mobility workers have gone on strike, according to the union, and the consequences could include serious disruptions at AT&T retail stores in more than 30 states. The walkout is scheduled to end by Monday morning, the union said. AT&T spokesperson Marty Richter expressed frustration with the union's action, but insisted that the company is prepared to handle the work stoppage.

"A strike is in no one's best interest, and it's baffling as to why union leadership would call one when we're offering terms in which our employees in these contracts—some of whom average from $115,000 to $148,000 in total compensation—will be better off financially," Richter told Motherboard in an email message.

The AT&T strike comes at a time of rapid transformation in the telecommunications industry. As the wireless businesses of telecom giants like AT&T and Verizon have matured, these companies have tried to diversify by getting into broadband delivery and content production. Verizon is making an online advertising play with the acquisitions of AOL and Yahoo, and AT&T is in the process of buying content giant Time Warner, in a massive $85 billion deal that is currently being scrutinized by federal regulators.

AT&T's acquisition of Time Warner has been particularly controversial because it would combine the telecom giant's vast broadband distribution network and DirecTV satellite business with Time Warner's premier content assets, including HBO, CNN, and the famed Hollywood studio Warner Bros. The deal has sparked concerns over media consolidation from such disparate voices as Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent, and President Trump, who railed against the merger during the presidential campaign.

The shift in priorities of telecom titans like AT&T and Verizon has caused widespread unease among employees who are concerned that the companies are giving their traditional wireless and wireline divisions short shrift. Last summer, more than 40,000 Verizon workers walked off the job for six weeks before reaching an agreement brokered by former US Labor Secretary Tom Perez.

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