Failure to communicate

Union workers try to call AT&T to account in a non-union age

Workers marched last weekend at AT&T’s Plumb Lane offices in Reno. Passing cars honked, whether in support or opposition was uncertain, though most honking drivers waved in friendly fashion.

Workers marched last weekend at AT&T’s Plumb Lane offices in Reno. Passing cars honked, whether in support or opposition was uncertain, though most honking drivers waved in friendly fashion.

Photo By dennis Myers

Michelle Albrecht arrived for the picket line on Plumb Lane and grabbed the first picket sign she saw at a pickup truck where workers gathered. It took a while until she noticed that the sign read, “Don’t cut my mom’s health care,” so she headed back to pick up a different sign.

Albrecht has been a working person for 30 years, more or less, but only now as an AT&T worker has she joined a union. This is partly because it was her first workplace that had the option, but it’s also because of workplace conditions.

“The contract was up, our wages were bad, and they want to cut our health care,” she said.

She was on the picket line at Reno’s AT&T office on Saturday evening at a protest designed to take place at midnight in the Eastern Time zone where contract negotiations are taking place. At that hour, the current contract of Communications Workers of America with AT&T ran out. In theory, the deadline could trigger a strike. AT&T workers affiliated with the Communications Workers of America voted to authorize a walkout. CWA district 9 workers, in California, Nevada and Hawaii, joined that majority. Whether a walkout would be called was up to the union leadership, depending, presumably, on whether progress in negotiations was being made. But workers reportedly were sent a message on Friday: “With the contract expiring Saturday night, remember to take your personal belongings home with you today!”

What was most interesting about all this is that almost no one knew it was happening. A search on the Google news page for the terms AT&T and contract turned up—nothing. Not a newspaper story, a television report, nothing

There were stories about AT&T and contracts, to be sure—contracts with Cablevision and with German consumer goods group Henkel, indicating the corporation’s relative good health. But not a single story about contract negotiations with CWA.

This is astounding. Thirty years ago, last-minute contract negotiations with a hanging threat of a strike in the case of this corporate giant would have been front page news. This year, it was apparently falling in the forest with no one hearing it at all. Have labor unions fallen so far off the radar?

CWA local president Jim Burrell doesn’t think so. He believes it was part of the union’s strategy not to draw attention to negotiations.

“It’s a different strategy, altogether. … We have 14 percent unemployment in this state. These people are working very hard to maintain and keep a good living wage, fair living wage. But that’s all they’re asking for. We are trying to be respectful, to allow the bargaining committee to do the bargaining at the table. And, of course, the last resort will always be a walkout.”

Maybe, but news coverage is seldom determined by whether its subjects want it. Even after the picket lines were thrown up around the nation, no stories resulted. More likely factors are the decline in news coverage of labor issues as a result of the declining membership of unions. When the strike authorization vote took place in March, the Associated Press ran one paragraph, which is no longer posted on the AP site.

AT&T similarly showed no interest in publicizing the negotiations. Although it once urged people on its website to check “this Web site as developments warrant and check the site periodically for current information on the status of negotiations,” there have been no news releases on contract negotiations posted in 2010.

The deadline came and went without a walkout. “We will be working without a contract,” Burrell said later. “We have some progress. Wages and benefits remain the stumbling block.”

Michelle Albrecht was on the picket line for the first union she ever joined.

Photo By dennis Myers


Along with pay and health coverage, there’s another issue this time—jobs that were previously outsourced. AT&T sent a lot of jobs to India several years ago. In negotiating the last contract, the corporation agreed to bring those jobs back to the United States, and they were placed in Nevada. But those jobs went over to India at $28 an hour. When they came back, they paid $14 with fewer benefits. “The health care benefits are very minimum,” Burrell said. “I mean, we have people who have children who have a job here, and they still qualify for Medicaid.”

Burrell said that there are about 265 AT&T workers in Reno and another 400 in Las Vegas. About 500 of them are CWA members. At the Reno protest, there was one couple on the picket line with their child. Both parents work at AT&T. “We’re a union family,” said the father.

That sentiment is increasingly rare, in spite of indications that unions aid even non-union workers. Cities with strong unions tend to have higher wages across the board, not just in union households. In Las Vegas, where unions are relatively powerful, the estimated median household income in 2008 was $53,097. In Reno, where unions have less influence, it was $51,447.

Second quarter results have not yet been reported, but in the first quarter of 2010, AT&T reported it had picked up 1.9 million wireless subscribers (513,000 of them contract, or postpaid) and activated 2.7 million iPhones, down from 3.1 million activations the previous quarter. It also reported it added 231,000 net U-verse subscribers to reach 2.3 million in service. The corporation also reported earnings of $2.5 billion on total revenue of $30.6 billion.

Last month the Gibbons administration signed a four-year, $12 million contract with AT&T for telecommunications services, making the corporate giant the primary telecommunications provider for northern Nevada state government offices.

Just as corporations like AT&T diversify beyond their original field, so do unions. While CWA’s name suggests it is a communications field union, in fact it represents more than just communications workers. In Reno, for instance, it represents more than 500 workers in the growing St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center.