Telecom conflict

Angry AT&T customers might empathize as local union takes on corporate behemoth

AT&T employees rally for more money and better benefits.

AT&T employees rally for more money and better benefits.

The Communication Workers of America, many of whom do their jobs here in Sacramento, rallied at the state Capitol last week against what they say are AT&T’s hardball tactics in current contract talks.

AT&T is seeking lower wages and wants to pass more health-care and pension costs on to employees, according to Sara Steffens, a CWA staffer. The telecommunications outfit, however, argues that it simply wants fairness when it comes to worker earnings and benefits.

“AT&T is a very successful and profitable company—thanks to our members,” reminded Lupe Mercado, CWA Local 9421 president, during the protest. The 54-year-old represents 1,700 workers in the Sacramento area.

The exponential gap between corporate and employee wages at AT&T continues to expand. In 2011, AT&T’s CEO and president Randall Stephenson had a total compensation that was 647 times larger than the average worker’s annual pay, or $22,018,334, according to an AFL-CIO database.

That average worker pay, meanwhile, is $34,000.

AT&T reported first-quarter 2012 revenues of $31.8 billion, due in large measure to strong consumer demand for smartphones and data-plan subscriptions.

But the capital region CWA members protesting last week don’t drive smartphone revenue; they’re “wireline” technicians—who, for instance, install telephone and video services—or customer-service employees at call centers, according to Libby Sayre, an area organizer for CWA, District 9.

The stalled contract talks involve a total of 43,000 workers, whose four CWA-AT&T contracts expired in April.

AT&T insists it will take care of its workers. “Our employees in these contracts are very well compensated, and they will continue to be,” assured spokesman Marty Richter.

He noted that AT&T is performing well overall, which allows the telecom giant to provide “high-quality middle-class careers” to its 250,000 employees.

“The average AT&T network technician in these contracts makes $90,000 in wages and $43,000 in benefits,” Richter said. “The average call-center rep makes $67,000 in wages and $40,000 in benefits.”

But Richter explained that a “small and declining” percentage of AT&T’s income and profit comes from its “shrinking” wireline business. “[Which] is where the employees in these contracts work,” Richter said.

According to its recent quarterly report, AT&T had a 2.5 percent drop in wireline revenues in 2011 vs. 2010. Yet, AT&T’s first quarter 2012 earnings news release stated that “wireline business year-over-year revenue comparisons continue to improve.”

At the June 27 rally, rank-and-file CWA members spoke out against what they claim is an attack on the American Dream and middle-class living.

Suzie Bledsoe, a 13-year AT&T employee and CWA member who lives in Sacramento and works in a company service center, said “the company [needs] to stop outsourcing our jobs … because AT&T is making a lot of money.”

“We care about our customers, and we deliver the product,” said local CWA president Mercado, “so AT&T workers deserve proper compensation, health care [that] it took years to get and a good retirement.”

Area organizer Sayre also emphasized that AT&T’s demand to shift rising health-care costs to CWA employees “is particularly problematic.”

Spokesman Richter pointed out, however, that the average AT&T wireline employee covered by these contracts pays some 60 percent less for health care than other AT&T unionized employees, managers and the national average. “Health-care costs in the U.S. continue to rise, which means the costs paid by companies and employees will continue to rise,” he said.

Assemblyman Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento) backed the unions. “We will continue to push and prod AT&T to protect your health care and wages for your and your family,” he told CWA members at the rally.

The CWA stated that thousands of California and Nevada members took part in the one-day strike to protest AT&T West’s threatening of employees over “union activity.”

Bargaining for wages, benefits, pension and work rules began this past February. “The two sides have agreed to continue bargaining and employees are continuing to work under the terms of the old agreement while negotiations continue,” said Richter.

In the end, though, experts believe there will be agreement. “This contract negotiation will likely go the way of past negotiations,” said Jeff Kagan, a telecommunications analyst. “The CWA and AT&T will stand opposed, but will meet somewhere in the middle.