A long row of tents extends along the sidewalk at 675 West Peachtree Street NW in Atlanta where the new Occupy Atlanta encampment has moved. The new site is just outside the southeastern US headquarters of AT&T, one of the US’s richest corporations.
Occupiers moved there on February 13 after about 70 people, union members, Occupy activists, and community supporters staged a sit-in to protest the impending layoffs of 740 AT&T workers. During the sit-in 12 people were arrested.
“This fight isn’t just about these jobs; it’s about all the jobs in America for the 99 percent,” said an unidentified young woman at the encampment. “It’s about the unprecedented wealth disparity that we have in this country.” They hog the money while the rest of us suffer, she said
The sit-in, a rally outside AT&T headquarters the day after the sit-in, and the ongoing campaign to save decent jobs at AT&T grew out of six months of coalition building between labor, civil rights, and community groups.
At a national union hall teleconference, Walter Andrews, president of CWA Local 3204 in Atlanta, explained how this coalition came together. Last summer CWA, civil rights groups like the NAACP, other unions, and community groups began meeting to plan this year’s Martin Luther King march, Andrews said. Over the next few months, the group met regularly and ties deepened.
In December, AT&T told its workers that hundreds would be facing layoffs or forced to relocate to keep their jobs beginning early next year. Local 3204, the union of the AT&T workers in Atlanta, decided to fight back and asked its coalition partners for their support. By this time, Occupy Atlanta was meeting with the group.
The coalition members agreed to hold a rally on Valentine’s Day to demand that AT&T stop the layoffs and meet with Local 3204 to discuss the company’s layoff procedures that violated the terms of its union contract. In addition to wanting to stop the layoffs, the union was concerned that those being relocated would have to work for less pay and lower benefits.
They made the announcement and set the Valentine’s Day rally in motion. Rather than agree to discuss the layoffs with the union, the company decided to post a security detachment to make sure that protestors couldn’t enter the building to speak directly to corporate officers.
Suspecting that AT&T would block any attempt by the rally to enter the building, the coalition organized a stealth contingent made up of CWA retirees, Teamsters, Jobs with Justice members, Occupy Atlanta activists, and community supporters who gathered at the AT&T building on the day before the big rally and walked into the headquarters unimpeded. They demanded to see the executives who engineered the layoffs, and when their request was denied, they staged their sit-in.
The next day, about 300 people picketed outside the headquarters. After the rally, Occupy tents sprouted up along the sidewalk outside the building, so that the protest against the layoffs would continue.
“I camped out one night,” Andrews said. “It was cold and I thought to myself, I’m out here by my own choice, but if we don’t stop these layoffs, there are people working right now who could end up homeless, on the street, and living in a tent not by choice but because they lost their job. That warmed me up and made me determined to keep fighting for these jobs.”
The layoffs come at a time when AT&T is doing well financially. The company reported $3 billion in net income last year, an amount that would have been higher if not for the botched merger attempt with T-Mobile. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson’s 2011 compensation package amounted to $18 million, which does not include the worth of his highly lucrative pension.
While AT&T is considering layoffs and downgrades, it announced that it will begin buying back 300 million stock shares, which will benefit investors.
“What’s happening at AT&T is symbolic of what has been happening all over the country.” reads a post on the Occupy Atlanta website. “The 1 percent wants to lower the standard of living for the average American worker, all so that they can pocket some extra cash. We can no longer allow them to squeeze every penny they can out of the 99 percent. The 99 percent creates the wealth; it is made on our backs. It’s time these big wigs stop getting handouts they don’t need while everyone else suffers.”