Wave of Walkouts at AT&T West

CWA Local 9509's six-day grievance strike was the largest at AT&T in California in 25 years. Photo: CWA Local 9509

On the East Coast, union members just approved a contract at Verizon. Meanwhile the next big telecom storm is brewing out West.

Fifteen thousand AT&T workers in California and Nevada have been without a contract since April 10. So they’ve started settling grievances the old-fashioned way: by striking.

These locals have the power now to strike over grievances and unfair labor practices, since their no-strike and mandatory arbitration clauses expired along with their contract.

Four thousand Communications Workers (CWA) members in Locals 9400 and 9510—over a quarter of the bargaining unit—went out for two days in June on a grievance and unfair labor practice strike. The issue: the company had unilaterally moved work, maintaining 911 equipment, to a lower-paid group.

That came on the heels of the largest strike at AT&T in California in 25 years. Local 9509 in San Diego went out for six days after a manager refused to produce reports about the monitoring of call-center workers.

And at five garages in metro Los Angeles, members of Local 9003 walked out on a four-day grievance strike after a premises technician was suspended for 15 days for a minor infraction—allegedly failing to put a tie wrap on a bundle of wires.

“A grievance strike is almost like our arbitration now,” said Local 9509 President Chris Roberts.

IN A DEFENSIVE FIGHT

The last major strike at AT&T was in 2004, when Districts 9, 3, and 4 teamed up for a four-day walkout. In 2012, getting a contract between CWA District 9 and AT&T took 14 months of negotiations.

This year it’s the last of the big regional AT&T contracts still unresolved—District 3 in the Southeast and District 4 in the Midwest both reached agreements last year. Many members are frustrated that the various regional contracts expire at different times, and want to get the dates synced up in the future.

AT&T is pushing to raise health care costs, move work to lower-paid job titles, and introduce yet another tier of workers, who would have no pensions or sick days. The other regions accepted some concessions.

“The company wants us to fall in line with everyone else,” said T. Santora, a Local 9003 executive-board member.

In addition to increasing health care costs for all members, AT&T wants to eliminate Kaiser from members’ health plan options. District 9 estimates 50 percent of its members use Kaiser, which is the cheapest option overall, because there are no deductibles and no out-of-pocket expenses except co-pays.

The union is also fighting to raise the pay for premises technicians, who install AT&T’s U-verse product, a TV, Internet, and telephone package similar to Verizon FiOS.

“Prem techs” start at $14 an hour and top out at $26 after five years with the company—$10 less than other technicians. (Verizon FiOS techs make more, but AT&T says it’s competing with non-union cable companies, not Verizon.) AT&T wants to shift work from higher-paid technicians to the prem techs.

“We want to see a pathway into making a livable wage doing what we do,” said Ray Beltran of Local 9509. He’s put in six years as a prem tech and hopes to stay with AT&T until he retires. “It seems like the company is trying to eliminate those technicians who have been around for 30 years, and drop it to a department that gets paid significantly less.”

On top of that, new hires would get no sick days or pensions. Already, workers hired since 2012 only get a cash-balance pension. AT&T also wants to saddle new hires with 32 percent of their health insurance costs—especially burdensome given low starting wages. Current employees, who paid no premiums until 2014, would pay the same percentage in three years.

WATCH WHAT YOU SAY

A number of locals got some earlier experience with grievance strikes in 2009 and 2012, though none lasted more than two days.

Legally, grievance strikes cannot aim to influence bargaining. So union leaders and members must watch what they say.

“You have to be very clear at the outset—it’s not related to bargaining,” said Santora. “You want to make sure you have a solid record if they do take legal action.

“Your signage has to reflect what you’re doing, if you have any signs. The words people speak when they walk off the job should be similar in nature.”

That discipline was on display during Local 9509’s strike in San Diego. Members developed a hashtag, #MarinaTalkToChris, referring to their demand that a manager respond to Roberts. They chanted the same slogan on picket lines and plastered it all over signs and social media.

It’s crucial, local leaders say, to make sure the union has a good steward structure and well-trained picket captains. “If you don’t have the communication and the discipline in place from your members,” Santora said, “people will wind up getting in trouble, or saying the wrong things at the wrong time.”

GET THEIR NUMBER

Before any major negotiations, CWA’s national defense fund—the source of Verizon workers’ strike pay—makes money available for locals to send up to 10 percent of members to a day-long mobilization class.

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The class covers the union’s history, members’ rights when working without a contract, and forms of concerted activity.

One benefit of the training for his local, Roberts said, was that it built unity among different groups of workers, who don’t usually see each other on the job and might otherwise be pitted against each other by AT&T’s divide-and-conquer efforts. “We were strategic to make sure that we had as diverse of a class as possible, with different job titles,” he said.

Roberts took over as president last year. As a steward, he had learned the importance of gathering members’ full contact information and then sharing positive and informative messages with them on a regular basis.

“I took that same process from very small work groups and expanded it to the whole local,” he said. He estimates the union now has phone numbers for 1,700 of its 1,750 AT&T members.

Those phone numbers were “probably the most key item that we had in our mobilization for the grievance strikes,” Roberts said, “because when the grievance strike was called, literally three stewards, including myself, were able to take the whole local out at 6 p.m. at night.”

KEEP IN CLOSE TOUCH

A rapid communication network is especially important because it’s hard to predict when a grievance strike might be triggered.

“Ours started out as a business-as-usual request for information,” said Roberts. The local had asked an area manager for reports on the monitoring of customer service reps. The reports allow the union to check that management is abiding by limits on how often calls get monitored and who does the monitoring.

“No one anticipated that the information, which the company is contractually obligated to give, was not going to be given,” said Roberts.

Throughout the strike, the local sent important messages to members by texting out a link to a document shared online (through Google). “I discovered that everyone’s phone’s a little bit different, because some people’s messages get cut off,” Roberts said. “So sending out a very short link is the best way to succeed at that.” The local also uses Facebook, its website, and strike captains to communicate with members.

The texting isn’t a one-way street. As a steward, Roberts would ask co-workers to text him questions about workplace issues before he met with management. A couple days after the meeting, he’d send out management’s responses. “Since I’ve taken over as president,” he said, “that’s the expectation in every work group.”

Ongoing communication during a grievance strike is also vital, especially since the issues can get quite complicated. Prem techs might not understand why they’re out over a call-center issue. Or if only one garage is taken out on strike, members in the same local or other locals want to know why they aren’t joining.

“The folks who are doing the ground-level work,” said Local 9423 President Jason Hall, “they need to believe that the people up top, who are giving them their marching orders, know what’s going on.”

Ahead of time, it’s rarely clear how long it will take to get a satisfactory resolution to the grievance. Roberts did not expect Local 9509’s strike would last six days. The longer that members go without pay, the more questions inevitably come up.

When a strike drags on, creative actions help keep up morale. On the strike’s fifth day, Beltran took some co-workers from his yard out to one of San Diego’s busiest freeways.

Traffic slowed to a crawl. “People were just wondering why 15 or 20 guys were on the overpass waving banners and holding a sign that said, ‘Shame on AT&T,’” Beltran said. Their impromptu protest made the local TV news.

CREATIVE AND VISIBLE

To support their bargaining team, workers wear red on Thursdays and black on Fridays. Local 9510 had a “black Friday,” featuring black balloons hung throughout the call center.

In the local’s garage in Fullerton, prem techs are wearing their orange crawl suits, used for crawling under houses or in attics, into morning meetings with managers. At another garage, prem techs show up half an hour early six days a week for informational picketing, and then march into work together.

And prem techs in San Jose’s Local 9423, outraged by the company’s initial offer of an extra 10 cents an hour for a significant expansion of their scope of work, have been vigorously tapping dimes on tables during morning meetings with management.

Afraid to provoke a grievance or unfair labor practice strike, managers have been hesitant to try to stop these actions.

Local leaders also handed out 1,000 whistles to members at a rally. “There’s been whole crews that have gotten together in the morning and blown the whistle for 30 seconds straight during their morning meetings,” Hall said, “and management [just] said, ‘OK.’”

These activities are helping workers feel a sense of power against the company—and that’s only amplified by the grievance strikes.

“I believe it was a victory and I think it set a precedent,” Beltran said of the six-day strike. “In the bigger scheme of things, I think it had an effect on how the company views us—that we’re not scared, that we’re not going to back down.”

For more on the legal ins and outs, see "Striking over Grievances when the Contract's Up"

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes # 448, July 2016. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.