Toilets Go Mobile at AT&T Mobility

AT&T Mobility workers are carrying toilet seats to retail stores and call centers to demand that the company stop flushing their sales commissions and incentive pay down the toilet. Photo: Unity at AT&T Mobility

Ever wanted to graffiti your boss a message in the toilet stall? AT&T Mobility workers put their own twist on that idea. They’re bringing the bathroom to the boss—carrying toilet seats to retail stores and call centers to demand that the company stop flushing their sales commissions and incentive pay down the toilet.

The Union Goes Live:

Phone Workers Learn Their Rights

Pennsylvania AT&T Mobility activists are using Facebook Live, which allows users to create live videos for a Facebook audience, to talk to members about their rights, how to fill out a grievance form, and managerial misconduct during observations.

In Stiffey’s unit, managers were refusing to allow union reps to sit in on observations, in which store managers grade workers on their performance on the sales floor. So he made a video explaining to members how to demand their legal right to union representation at an investigatory interview, or "Weingarten rights."

“We suggested anytime that there’s a conversation with management, ask: Is this conversation going to be recorded in any way? Is it going to be placed into my employee file? Can or will it be used for discipline in the future? Is discipline going to be handed out in this conversation?” If the answer to any of those questions is yes, the union urges members to demand a union rep.

“As a result, the number of sales reps who have really stepped up and pushed for their Weingarten rights has increased dramatically,” said Stiffey. This push from below, coupled with a threat to file Labor Board charges, convinced the director of stores in his area to get managers to stop resisting workers’ requests for a union rep.

Evanetz and Stiffey also use Facebook Live for question-and-answer sessions after bargaining reports are released. To accommodate retail workers’ schedules, they usually do these at 9:30 p.m., after Mobility stores have closed. Evanetz estimates that 100 members watched the first Q&A he did. Stiffey says that in his unit 30-40 members tune in live, and 70-80 percent watch most videos within a week.

“The more outlets and the more means the members have, the more they’re actually communicating,” Stiffey said. “They’re seeing very quick results and feedback on their concerns—and it’s definitely strengthening the union’s power.”

The 21,000 Mobility workers in 36 states have voted 93 percent yes to authorize a strike if necessary. These workers in AT&T’s wireless division 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.

Their old contract expired on February 11, though the company and union agreed to an extension that can be canceled with 72 hours’ notice from either side. In this round of negotiations they’ve mounted their largest mobilization ever, including creative tactics like the roving toilet seats.

“It’s one of those things that is genuinely showing a change of tide,” said retail sales consultant Nate Evanetz, president of Unit 37 of Communications Workers (CWA) Local 13000.

To give the toilet seats some “flair,” Evanetz and his co-workers in eastern Pennsylvania have tagged the lids with their unit and branch numbers, along with some of the union’s temporary tattoos. Participating members also sign their names.

“We decorated the top, so we can hang them up somewhere later,” said Evanetz, “Who knows, maybe we’ll pack them up and send them to Randall Stephenson.” Stephenson, the CEO of AT&T, saw his pay jump to $28.4 million last year, at the same time the company put a cap on commissions for retail workers.

As part of the action, workers “flush” dollar bills with Stephenson’s salary—and face—on the front. Often they do it inside their own stores, setting up the toilet seat on the tables where they meet customers or next to the cash register. On the back, there’s space to write what they want in bargaining: “Respect.” “A better life for our families.” “Better health care.” “A better work-life balance.”

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Commissions are a major issue in the stores. “In the six years I’ve been with the company,” said James Stiffey, a retail sales consultant in Cranberry, Pennsylvania, “we’ve seen our goals and performance metrics go up, we’ve seen the number of products we’re expected to sell increase, and we’ve seen more competition put into the marketplace by the company with authorized retailers. We’re making less money than we were making five or six years ago.”

Stiffey, the local’s Unit 42 president, estimated that some members saw their pay drop by as much as $10,000 last year, thanks to changes in the commission structure.

A NEW DAY AT MOBILITY

Evanetz has been with the company for 13 years, and active with the union since 2007. “At that point I was the only Mobility member in the state of Pennsylvania that was a union steward,” he says.

Since then Local 13000 has set up four Mobility-only units, subgroups of the local with their own leadership structures. More important, union activists have developed new channels to communicate with members.

“In the past, we had some stores that had mobilizers, but a lot of the mobilizers were simply updating and maintaining our union bulletin board,” said Stiffey. (In CWA, mobilizers are union activists responsible for keeping members plugged in to union activities.) When it came to negotiations, “most of the information four years ago came down from the local with the bargaining reports,” he said. “There wasn’t a lot of in-store communication.”

Unit 42’s 197 retail store workers and Mobility technicians are spread out across 5,000 square miles in western Pennsylvania. In this round of bargaining, Stiffey set up a secret Facebook group just for them, which he has used to distribute bargaining updates and pictures from actions across the country.

VICTORIES NO SECRET

The group also became an avenue for union reps to hear about in-store issues and educate members on their rights. “When things are popping up in stores, we’re immediately addressing them,” said Stiffey. “It’s much more of a living, breathing process than it was in the past.”

For example, the company recently started forcing retail workers off the sales floor to make cold calls to small businesses, work that’s normally done by management-level teams. “They were modifying our job responsibilities without any type of pay increase,” said Stiffey. “And with us working on an extended contract right now, the company’s not able to modify those job rules.”

Members notified union reps via text message and in the Facebook group. Stiffey and Evanetz posted in their groups asking if others were experiencing the same issue in their locations. That helped them bring the issue to the bargaining team, who took it to the company’s negotiators.

“It wasn’t just us walking in and saying, ‘This is going on at location A,’” said Stiffey. “We were able to have multiple accounts of it being done in a variety of ways in a variety of stores. It definitely added leverage, and showed it wasn’t an isolated incident.”

Within two days, the company announced that the cold calls were voluntary and workers who refused to do them wouldn’t be disciplined.

This process would have taken months in the past, Stiffey said. “It’s strengthening our power now so much more than a four- to six-month process that a member across the state may not even hear about.”

Evanetz too has created a secret Facebook group for his unit; he estimates that 80 to 85 percent of Unit 37 members are in it. “People are able to speak freely in the group,” said Evanetz. “They can reach out to each other and say, ‘Hey, this is going on with us, is this going on with you?’ It’s a much more streamlined way to get information out to our entire membership quickly.

“That’s been exponentially helpful in getting a better-educated membership to start standing up for themselves and to understand, ‘Hey, it is different being in a union.’ You have more rights, you’re able to question things and not just being told forcibly, ‘This is the way it is.’”

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes # 458, May 2017. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.