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.


Tentative agreement with AT&T creates good-paying union jobs

A new tentative agreement between the Communication Workers of America District 6 (CWA) and AT&T creates 3000 new good-paying union jobs.

The tentative agreement covers 20,000 AT&T union workers in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Most of the 3000 new union jobs had previously been outsourced to other countries; others had been outsourced to US contractors who pay their workers less than union wages and benefits.

Union members must still ratify the tentative agreement. The union will hold a town hall teleconference on March 9 to provide details about the agreement to members.

A summary of the agreement is available on the CWA District 6 website.

The date of the ratification vote has yet to be scheduled.

In addition to creating 3000 new jobs, the new agreement raises pay by 10.75 percent over the next four years. Pay increases by 3 percent in 2017, 2.5 percent in 2018, 3 percent in 2019, and 2.25 percent in 2020.

Pay increases are offset somewhat by increased worker health care costs. According to the union, take home pay will increase despite the higher health care costs.

The tentative agreement also includes for the first time two weeks of paid leave for parents to bond with a new born or adopted child. Mothers will continue to receive six weeks of paid leave after the birth of a child.

The 3000 new jobs are largely call center jobs that had been outsourced abroad.

Bringing these jobs back home bucks a trend. For years now, companies have been moving call center jobs abroad in order to reduce labor costs.

Outsourcing call center work hurts workers who lose their jobs and many others.

According to a report on call center offshoring published by CWA,

As US companies offshore and outsource call center jobs, communities lose. In many communities, the loss of a call center means the loss of a pillar of the local economy. In many cases, because of the intense pressure from cheaper, less regulated foreign operators, when companies export US jobs, they also exert downward pressure on wages and working conditions at home.

In hopes of reversing the offshoring trend in the call center industry, CWA is supporting the US Call Center Worker and Consumer Protection Act, which was introduced into both the US House of Representatives and Senate on March 2.

“This call center legislation is just common sense,” said Jennifer Szpara, a CWA member who works for Verizon. “It would help keep good call center jobs here in the US. It would give customers who are connected to an overseas call center the right to be transferred back to the US. And it would mean that companies that do send good jobs overseas wouldn’t be rewarded with taxpayer-funded grants and loans. It’s a win for customers, workers, our communities, and our employer.”

GE and unions reach tentative agreement; members still need to ratify it

Unions and GE on June 21 reached a tentative agreement on a new four-year collective bargaining agreement.

Leaders from local unions have arrived in New York City to review the agreement. If they recommend ratification, union members will vote on whether to accept or reject the agreement.

If ratified, the agreement could become a bellwether for other contracts being negotiated this year between large, global corporations like GE and the unions that represent their workers.

Corporations that will be bargaining new contracts include AT&T, Verizon, Ford, Chrysler, GM, US Steel, and Arcelor Mittal (steel) to name a few.

The new contract with GE does not include major concessions by the unions, which had become a trend, but it also does not make up for lost ground resulting from concessions made in previous contracts.

Among other things, the Coordinated Bargaining Committee, a coalition of eleven unions whose members work for GE, had made winning a significant wage increase a priority for this bargaining cycle.

According to UE, one of the two main unions of GE workers that along with IUE-CWA led the negotiations, the new tentative agreement increases compensation by $15,500 over the four-year life of the agreement.

Most of the compensation increase comes in the form of lump sum payments.

If workers ratify the agreement, they will receive a $2000 ratification bonus and a $1500 lump sum payment in July 2015.

After that they will receive three more lump sum payments: $2000 in January 2016, $2250 in January 2018, and $2250 in January 2019.

The lump sum payments will increase pension credits for those workers still enrolled in the company’s defined benefits pension plan and count toward increased company contributions to retirement savings plan for those workers no longer eligible to participated in the pension plan.

Hourly wage increases will be modest. Over the four-year life of the contract, wage rates will increase by $1.40 an hour implemented in four increments: $0.20 per hour in June 2016, $0.60 an hour in January 2017, $0.20 an hour in January 2018, and $0.20 an hour in January 2019.

The tentative agreement maintains the current fixed cost of living increase formula, which will help boost base pay beyond the $1.40 four-year total.

The wage increase will be offset somewhat my higher premiums for health care insurance. The agreement includes a sliding scale for determining health insurance premiums.

By the last year of the new agreement, UE members earning $87,500 a year will pay an additional $32.50 a week for full family coverage for the Option 1 health plan. Those making less will see a lower increase in premiums.

While premiums will increase, there will be no increase in the amount paid for deductibles and co-payments.

One of the main complaints raised by GE workers before bargaining began was that the new health care plan made access to health care more difficult and was resulting in late payments for providers.

They wanted changes to the plan. No changes were made in the tentative agreement, but the two sides agreed to jointly review the plan’s performance and make changes if the problems persist.

The tentative agreement also increases pension payments for active workers enrolled in the defined benefits pension plan, and GE agreed in a separate memorandum to request a pension increase at the next GE board meeting for those already retired.

Workers who were hired after the last contract expired in 2011 are no longer eligible to participate in the defined benefits pension plan. They are instead enrolled in a retirement savings plan. The tentative agreement did not change their status.

GE also maintained its two tiered wage system. Workers hired after 2005 will continue to receive a lower wage for the same work as those hired before 2005.

The new tentative agreement also contains language that will increase GE’s cost for outsourcing jobs or transferring work to non-union GE plants, but GE continues to look for ways to reduce its union workforce.

GE in 2013 transferred 950 union jobs at its locomotive plant in Erie, Pennsylvania to its non-union plant in Fort Worth, and it plans to close its Fort Edwards, New York capacitor plant and move the work to a non-union plan Clearwater, Florida by September 2015.

Should GE workers approve the new tentative agreement, they will likely find that they will have to continue fighting to prevent GE from chipping away at their hard-won gains.

ILWU delegates recommend ratification of tentative agreement

ILWU caucus delegates voted on April 3 to recommend that union members ratify a tentative agreement that the union’s negotiating team and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) negotiated in February.

The agreement covers 20,000 longshore workers at 29 ports along the US West Coast.

Union members will now receive copies of the agreement and vote on it by mail. Voting will end May 22.

Seventy-eight percent of the caucus delegates voted to recommend ratification of the agreement.

“We secured a tentative agreement to maintain good jobs for dockworkers, their families, and their communities,” said Robert McEllrath, ILWU international president. “Longshore men and women on the docks will now have the final and most important say in the process.”

Negotiations that led to the tentative agreement lasted nine months, the longest negotiating period in the history of the ILWU.

During that time, PMA, which represents maritime and stevedore corporations doing business on the West Coast, accused longshore workers of engaging in a slowdown to give the union more bargaining leverage.

PMA in January retaliated for the alleged slowdown by enforcing a partial lockout at some of the busiest ports on the West Coast.

During the negotiations, especially toward the end, the delivery of cargo bound for the nation’s retailers was delayed significantly.

The delay had a big impact on the nation’s economy. A research and policy organization of merchants claims that by the end of the negotiation, the delays were costing the national economy $2 billion a day.

Another source said that the delays cost US retailers $3 billions in lost sales.

The delays led President Obama to send Labor Secretary Thomas Perez to the West Coast to monitor negotiations. After Perez spoke to both sides in the dispute, the union and PMA reached a tentative agreement.

Details about the agreement have not been made public, but the union provided some information on a few of the major issues that stalled negotiations.

One of the big stumbling blocks was PMA’s desire to cut longshore workers’ health care benefits.

That issue was resolved last summer when the two sides agreed to maintain the current health care benefit, which covers a wide range of health care services for workers, their families, and retirees at almost no cost to workers.

Another hurdle was the question of who would perform inspection and repair work on container chassis, the trailers that haul the large cargo containers.

Until last year, PMA represented employers owned the chassis, and union members inspected and repaired them as needed. But employers decided to outsource this work and sold their chassis to third-party contractors.

The sale created bottlenecks that contributed to delays in getting cargo delivered and made an already dangerous job less safe.

In January, the union and PMA agreed that ILWU members would inspect and repair the chassis before they leave the docks even though the third-party contractors will continue to own the chassis.

The last hurdle involved the arbitration process used to settle grievances. The union was concerned that some arbitrators were favoring employers in their arbitration decisions. Many of these decisions affect the health and safety of workers.

Loading and unloading large cargo containers is dangerous work, and this work will like get more dangerous as employers introduce more automation on the docks.

To protect worker safety, the union wanted to ensure that worker grievances get a fair hearing and pushed to replace some arbitrators who the union thought weren’t being objective.

The two sides compromised on this point by agreeing to replace arbitrators with three-person arbitration panels.

The tentative agreement also raises base pay and provides additional pay increases for workers with specialized skills.

The business press has called the tentative agreement a big win for the union and its members, but critics of the tentative agreement, some of whom are members and either current or former local leaders, are urging members to reject it.

According to those critical of the agreement, it doesn’t do enough to protect workers from job losses caused by automation, it gives bigger pay raises to those already earning higher wages, it doesn’t go far enough in protecting ILWU jurisdiction on chassis work, and it weakens an ILWU tradition of solidarity by making it more difficult for ILWU  members to refuse to cross picket lines.

Union leaders have refused to speculate whether members will ratify the tentative agreement, but whatever the outcome, there’s no guarantee that the new agreement will bring labor peace to the docks during the five-year life of the contract.

PMA represented employers will continue to probe for union weakness as they struggle to find new ways to reduce union power on the docks.

Union and Shell reach a tentative agreement; strike continues until agreement is ratified

The United Steelworkers (USW) announced on March 12 that the union and Shell Oil Company have reached a tentative agreement on a new contract that will set the pattern for wages, benefits, and safety improvements at oil refineries where USW members work.

USW represents 30,000 oil workers at 65 refineries and related facilities in the US.

About 7,000 oil workers at 15 oil company plants have been on strike since February 1. The union said that the strike will continue until union members at the struck facilities have a chance to review the agreement and ratify it.

USW said that the tentative agreement meets its bargaining goals.

One of those goals was to improve safety at US oil refineries where during the last five years, 27 workers have died on the job and hundreds have been injured.

In praising the new tentative agreement, Leo Gerard, USW international president, said that the solidarity of the strikers had won “vast improvements in safety and staffing.”

Details about these improvements have not been made public, but according to one union official, the union will now have a voice in setting staffing levels and ensuring that workers are adequately trained.

“The new agreement calls for joint review on the local level of future, craft worker staffing needs,” said Tom Conway, USW vice president. “Included are hiring plans to be developed in conjunction with recruitment and training programs.”

Staffing levels, adequate training, and refinery safety are all intertwined.

In 2005, an explosion at the BP refinery in Texas City killed 15 workers and injured 180 more. The US Chemical Safety Board blamed the explosion on worker fatigue caused by inadequate staffing levels and a lack of effective training.

In 2013, a fire at an Exxon Mobile facility in Beaumont, Texas killed two and injured ten when a temporary worker with little training used a torch to cut away a stuck bolt on a vessel filled with volatile hydrocarbons.

Oil companies, instead of hiring enough permanent staff to meet production goals have been relying, instead, on excessive overtime, which leads to excessive fatigue.

Brent Petit, president of USW Local 13-750, whose members work in Shell facilities in Norco and Convent, Louisiana, told the St. Charles Herald Guide that it is not uncommon for refinery workers to work between 500 and 1,000 hours of overtime a year, and they often work 60 or more a week.

Oil companies also are not replacing experienced workers who retire or quit; instead, the companies are using temporary workers, and as the fire that took two lives in Beaumont showed, these temporary workers often don’t receive proper training.

Whether the new tentative agreement actually improves safety will depend largely on whether workers can continue to muster the kind of solidarity that they showed during the strike.

Although Shell did not openly encourage workers to break the strike, it did try to weaken the union by sowing discontent. For example, in a letter to strikers, the company tried to undermine the union by claiming that the company was negotiating in good faith on safety issues.

But the tactic didn’t work.

Reuters reports that at the Shell facilities in Deer Park, Texas fewer than 10 percent of the strikers returned to work and many of those who did so were not union members to begin with.

The Lake Charles Herald Guide reported that at the Shell facilities in Louisiana even a lower percentage of strikers left the picket lines and returned to work.

Even though the two sides have reached a tentative agreement, the strike won’t be over until union members ratify the agreement.

Locals that are on strike will also have a chance to bargain on local issues, and members will have a chance to sign off on any local issues that might be included in the agreement.

According to USW, employers at refineries that weren’t on strike will likely offer the same terms that are in the tentative agreement with Shell, and workers at these refineries will have a chance to bargain on local issues as well. When the bargaining is complete, then workers at the refineries not on strike will vote on the new contract.

Teamster committee recommends approval of YRC Worldwide agreement

A committee of local Teamster leaders approved a new tentative agreement with YRC Worldwide. The committee also recommended that members accept the agreement when they vote on it at local meetings to be held on January 25 and 26. The vote will be conducted by secret ballot.

Members rejected a previous YRC offer by a vote of 61 percent to 39 percent. The offer, made without bargaining with the union, would have extended the current contract through 2019, kept in place concessions members agreed to in 2009, and implemented new concessions.

The new agreement is an improvement over the earlier offer but still contains substantial concessions that were in the original offer.

“No one wants concessions,” said Jim Hoffa, Teamster general president. “But with a yes vote, at least we live to see another day, and I’d urge (members) to do that.”

YRC Worldwide, a holding company that operates the largest less-than-load freight hauling business in the US, is facing financial difficulties, which by all accounts is the result of poor executive decisions.

According to Forbes, YRC’s difficulties are the result of “ill-fated moves to expand the company through aggressive acquisitions.”

The buying binge began in 2003 when Yellow Transportation merged with Roadway and culminated in 2008 with purchase of freight companies in China.

The acquisitions left YRC Worldwide with a heavy debt load, which along with a sluggish economy dampened profits. The last time that the company turned a profit was 2007.

The company’s fortunes seemed to be on the mend recently. While profits remained negative, business had picked up, and by 2013, the outlook was good enough that the company sought to buy one of its leading competitors ABF.

But the deal fell through.

At the time of the acquisition attempt, ABF was in negotiations with Teamsters on a new agreement.

Hoffa called the acquisition attempt a sign of YRC’s “arrogance,” which, he said, originally got the company in trouble. He called on YRC to restore worker wages and benefits before it sought to buy other companies.

Even though the deal fell through, YRC’s CEO James Welch told the Kansas City Business Journal that the attempted acquisition demonstrated the financial strength of the company.

But it soon became clear that Welch’s boast was more bluster than fact.

Payments on more than a $1 billion in debt acquired by YRC to finance previous acquisitions were coming due in 2014 and 2015, and YRC announced that it didn’t have the cash on hand to make the payments.

It sought to refinance the loans, but lenders demanded that the company seek further concessions from Teamster members before they would agree to the loans.

In November, the company proposed an offer to extend the current agreement with modifications through 2019. The offer kept wages at 15 percent below wages in Teamsters national transportation master agreement, established lower pay for new hires, increased worker health care expenses, and allowed YRC to continue contributing 75 percent less to the workers’ pension fund than other trucking companies included in the Teamsters’ national transportation master agreement.

It also reduced vacation time, expanded outsourcing, and implemented work rule changes including changes to the company’s attendance policy.

After the workers rejected the offer, YRC began to bargain with the Teamsters, and the tentative agreement is the result of that bargaining process.

The original offer provided for $0.34 an hour raises in 2016, 2017, and 2018, for drivers–which would keep their pay 15 percent below the master agreement–but dock workers, clerical workers, and other non-drivers received no raises.

The tentative agreement extends the wage increase and lump sum payments to all union workers.

It also improves the attendance policy originally offered by the company, restores some of the proposed cuts to vacation time, improves the proposed wage reductions for new hires, modifies the company’s original proposal for outsourcing work, and includes layoff protections.

In addition, the tentative agreement bars the company from making further acquisitions without the union’s approval.

The agreement leaves in place the higher health care costs, reduced pension contributions, and a wage structure 15 percent below the one in the master agreement.

Local Teamster leaders who recommended approval were under tremendous pressure to do so. They were told by the Teamsters’ economic adviser that if the agreement is rejected, YRC will likely declare bankruptcy.

Verizon workers ratify new contract

The CWA and IBEW on October 19 announced that members on the East Coast from Virginia to Maine ratified the tentative agreement that the unions reached with Verizon in September.

“The ratification vote shows that our members listened to the union’s leadership when we told them that this was the best contract we could negotiate with Verizon at this point in time,” said Bill Huber, president and business manager of IBEW Local 827 in New Jersey.  “They understood that we were facing a perfect storm of negative economic circumstances and that although this was not the best contract we had hoped to achieve, it was one that will allow us to live to continue to fight for our members and the consumers they serve.”

Neither union released any details about the ratification vote, but several CWA locals, including one of the union’s largest, Local 1101 in New York City, rejected the new contract.

Nevertheless, the contract becomes effective on October 21 and stays in effect until August 2015.

When negotiations began in June 2011, Verizon demanded a long list of concessions to bring the pay, benefits, and working conditions of its unionized Wireline workers into line with those of its non-union Wireless workers

Among other things, the company sought to freeze pensions and eliminate them for new hires, eliminate regular pay raises, reduce sick days, eliminate job security and other job protections, eliminate shift pay differentials, eliminate double-time pay, cut disability pay in half, and substantially increase employee health care costs.

The tentative agreement held the line against many of these concessions. It includes an 8 percent pay raise paid in annual increments over three years, preserves the pension benefit for current employees,  preserves the no-layoff, no forced transfer, and no downgrade language of the previous contract, preserves shift and weekend pay differentials, increases company health care funding for retirees, and restricts the company’s ability to move work outside the region.

The new contract also returns to work, 37 of the 41 workers who Verizon fired because of their strike activity; although it’s not clear whether the returning workers will receive back pay.

The new contract, however, increases out of pocket health care expenses such as premium payments, co-pays, and deductibles. Over the next three years, premiums for the PPO plan increase from $0 a month to $55 a month for individuals and $110 for families; for the HMO plan, premiums increase from $0 a month to $82.50 a month for indivuduals and $165 a month for families.

Tobacco users will pay an extra $50 a month, and those who don’t complete a health assessment risk will pay an extra $100.

For the PPO, deductibles increase over the next three years from $250 a year for individuals and $625 for families to $475 for individuals and $1187.50 for families

The maximum that a worker pays for out of pocket medical expenses also increases at about the same rate as the deductible increases.

In a letter to members urging them to  accept the tentative agreement, CWA District 1 Vice-President Chris Shelton told members that the union agreed to health care cost increases in order to win concessions from the company on other issues such as preserving pensions for current employees, job security, retiree health care, and disability benefits.

In addition to agreeing to higher health care expenses, the unions also agreed to eliminate pensions for new hires, who will now be diverted into a 401(k) savings plan instead.

Shelton said that the union didn’t want to create a two-tiered pension system, but that it would have taken a strike in order to preserve the benefit. “Ask yourself, how long would you personally be willing to stay on the street to guarantee a defined benefit pension for workers who are not yet hired,” said Shelton in his letter.”

But Local 1101 President Keith Purce urged members to reject the deal.

“We don’t believe we should settle for a concessionary contract without a fight,” Purce told members in a message posted on the local’s website.

Other Local 1101 members said that they also opposed the contract because of the concessions that the union made.

“New hires already aren’t covered by the job security protection that pre-2003 hires have,” said Pam Galpern, a Local 1101 member, to Labor Notes. “And they don’t have the same retiree health benefits as those hired before 2008, and now they won’t have a pension. (Verizon is) incrementally trying to dismantle the contract we have.”

Shelton described the negotiations as the toughest he has seen in the 44 years that he has been a CWA member.

The reason that the negotiations were so tough is that corporate power is stronger than it has been since the 1930s. At the same time, union membership at companies such as Verizon has declined. Only 7 percent of the private sector workforce is organized, and the CWA has lost half of its membership at Verizon.

Just as important is the fact that Verizon is retreating from the Wireline business and focusing more on its non-union Wireless business. The company’s CEO Lowell McAdams told investors that he envisions that the company will some day abandon much of its Wireline infrastructure, which provides jobs for most union members.

Whether the unions at Verizon will be able to stop future concessions will depend on the unions’ ability to organize workers at Verizon Wireless.