Union describes tentative agreement with AT&T as “groundbreaking”

The Communication Workers of America (CWA) on December 14 announced that it reached a tentative agreement with AT&T on a contract that covers 21,000 AT&T Orange Mobility workers.

The union called the tentative agreement a “groundbreaking contract” because it raises wages well above the national average for retail and call center workers, provides unprecedented protections against outsourcing, and provides first-ever job security protections.

The agreement did not come easy. It took 11 months of hard bargaining and a flurry of mobilizations by rank and file union members to finally reach an agreement.

When bargaining began, the company showed no interest in addressing bargaining concerns raised by workers.

When the union said that it wanted the new contract to provide protections against outsourcing, the company said that it wasn’t interested.

When the union said that it wanted the new contract to provide some guarantees of job security, the company said that it wasn’t interested.

When the union said that it wanted the new contract to provide some relief from the company’s draconian disciplinary policies, the company said that it wasn’t interested.

The company’s intransigence forced the union to call a three-day unfair labor strike in May.

The strike, the largest strike by retail workers in the US, shut down hundreds of AT&T retail stores in 36 states and the District of Columbia.

After the strike, the union continued to mobilize workers to demonstrate their solidarity and determination to win a fair contract.

After months of negotiations and mobilizations, the union was finally able to announce that it reached a tentative agreement that it could take to its membership.

Brandon Beck, an AT&T retail worker in San Diego, said that the success of the AT&T workers’ fight has implications for the entire working class.

“For too long, corporations have been squeezing workers and taking away our prospects for good quality American job–jobs that we can genuinely live on and that give us our fair share of the productivity we bring to our communities and country,” Beck said. “This contract shows that wireless workers like me will no longer put up with this disturbing trend. We have successfully fought back together against increased sales pressure, reduced pay, and the frustration of outsourced and offshored call centers. We can breathe easier knowing the service to our customers will be better, and our future will be brighter. Quality jobs are here to stay and grow.”

The tentative agreement raises wages by 10.1 percent over the four-year life of the contract.

For retail store workers like Beck, whose pay partially depends on commissions, the contract shifts $2500 from commissions to base pay, which makes workers’ paychecks more stable and predictable.

During the life of the contract, retail store workers’ pay will increase to an average of $19.20 per hour, well above the national average for retail workers.

Additionally, the agreement requires AT&T to route 80 percent more calls to call centers in the US covered by the Orange contract, and it requires the company to provide quarterly reports to the union that it can use to monitor and enforce compliance.

Protecting jobs against outsourcing was one of the workers biggest concerns because companies such as AT&T have been outsourcing more call center work abroad.

Other important features of the agreement include:

  • job security language that guarantees a job for workers whose store or call center is closed or whose job title is eliminated
  • more flexibility for the use of sick days and less risk of discipline for using them
  • restrictions on monitoring and surveillance so that evaluations are fair
  • maintaining workers’ health insurance costs at present levels
  • safety equipment for warehouse workers and
  • increased on-call pay for technicians.

These improvements were made possible by an organized and mobilized union membership.

When it looked like negotiations were going to be difficult and protracted, the union created a network of mobilizers, rank and file union activists who could help build demonstrations of solidarity and keep members informed about the negotiations.

The first big test of the effectiveness of this network was the three-day strike in May.

Participation in the strike exceeded expectations of the union and set the company back on its heels.

“Management was absolutely stunned that so many people went on strike to demand a fair contract (special props to our great mobilizers and picket captains who did great work maintaining those picket line),” said CWA in a message to members after the strike.

When workers returned to work, the union kept up pressure by organizing a series of solidarity actions.

Some were small such as wearing union stickers and t-shirts; some were big such as participating in informational picket lines at AT&T stores.

In October, the company tried to skirt the union by sending what it called its final offer directly to union members in hopes that members would pressure union negotiators to agree to a contract on the company’s terms.

The company’s attempt to undercut the union backfired. Instead of pressuring the union to agree to a faulty contract, union members swamped a top AT&T executive with emails demanding that the company get serious about negotiating a fair contract.

In November, it did, and by the middle of December, the union was able to announce that it had reached a tentative agreement.

In January, union members will begin voting on whether to ratify the agreement.

Dennis Trainor, vice president CWA Region 1, said that solidarity and persistence by union members won an “historic contact” and that these actions represent a harbinger of things to come.

“Let this be a sign to all companies that put profits above workers: when we stand together, we win,” Trainor said.

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