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CWA, AT&T Negotiations Continue After Contracts for 40,000 Workers Expire

Thursday, April 12, 2012
By Susan R. Hobbs

After labor contracts expired at midnight April 7, the Communications Workers of America and AT&T Inc. have continued collective bargaining to renew contracts for labor agreements covering some 40,000 workers at the company's AT&T Midwest, AT&T West, AT&T Northeast, and AT&T Legacy wireline operations.

CWA April 8 announced the union is retaining its option to begin a strike at any time, however. In March, 93 percent of CWA members who voted cast ballots to give authorization to union executive board members to call strikes if collective bargaining contracts cannot be reached with AT&T.

“We're keeping our options open as we focus on reaching an agreement that maintains our standard of living,” Ralph Maly, CWA telecommunications and technologies vice president, said just before midnight April 7 in a posting to union members.

While employees continue to work without a contract, the terms of the expired contract, including wages, working conditions, and benefits, remain in effect with the exception of arbitration for grievances.

Most Issues Remain Unresolved
Contract negotiations began Feb. 29 at four bargaining tables for agreements covering about 18,000 workers in California, Hawaii, and Nevada at AT&T West; 15,000 workers in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin at AT&T Midwest; 6,000 workers at AT&T Legacy; and 4,000 workers in New England at AT&T East and AT&T East Yellow Pages.

The core contracts cover landline employees in both network and call center roles.

According to CWA, the parties remain far apart on nearly all the major issues important to the union, including wages, health care costs, pensions, employment security, and successorship language. The CWA negotiating team for the Legacy contract said the parties “are no closer to an agreement than we were on day one,” as AT&T has continued its call for union concessions on job security, job absence, health care costs, pensions, and pay for overtime.

After the contract expired, the union and company negotiating teams for the Legacy contract met until 2 a.m., then returned to the table in the afternoon on Easter Sunday. CWA said, however, the company has not moved on any of the issues important to the union.

CWA's package proposal includes wage increases for all employees, pension benefit increases, a small increase in health care cost share, a multifaceted proposal on employment security, and successorship language.

Union Mobilization to Increase
Union leaders continued to emphasize that AT&T is a highly profitable company as they urge union members to mobilize both through internal actions and public events.

“You should be clear, just because we did not go on strike there can be no business as usual. We must take the fight, not just into the work place, but into our communities and let everyone know that AT&T, one of the most profitable companies in America, is taking the low road and trying to destroy middle class jobs,” the union negotiating team for the Legacy contract said April 8 in an electronic update to union members.

CWA District 4's communication to members identified the current situation as the “strike standby” phase and told members, “We are in the fight of our lives.”

“Mobilization has to rise to a new level of confrontation and resistance so that the bully boys in Dallas start to realize the value of labor peace,” CWA District 9 Vice President Jim Weitkamp told union members at midnight April 7.

A spokesman for Dallas-based AT&T was not available for comment.

Job Security Tops CWA Priority List
On the opening day of contract negotiations, CWA districts emphasized the importance of job security, saying the union wants to expand “hometown, quality jobs” and stop layoffs and the outsourcing of work overseas. CWA said it also has concerns about any shifts of health care costs to workers.

CWA said it wants to expand access to jobs AT&T creates in the future through improved voluntary transfer rights without loss of seniority and benefits protection.

Other key issues for the union expressed in opening statements on the first day of bargaining include expanded pensions, a wage increase, and “justice on the job” addressing mandatory overtime, inflexible work schedules, performance and sales quotas, and increased surveillance.

AT&T's opening remarks Feb. 29, however, identified its employees' compensation packages as “significantly greater than those of our competitors in the cable and telecommunications industry and the rest of America.” In particular, AT&T said the wireline employees have the most expensive health care benefits in the company and that the company must achieve “more sustainable health care costs.”

Currently employees contribute about 18 percent to health care costs. The company has called for employee contributions of 30 percent by the third year of a contract.

Meanwhile, CWA has been in collective bargaining negotiations with Verizon Communications Inc. since June 2011 to renew contracts that expired Aug. 6 covering some 45,000 wireline employees in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states. The unions conducted a two-week strike before returning to work Aug. 22 with an agreement to extend the contracts indefinitely while bargaining continued. CWA claimed at the time that Verizon's proposals for concessions would “roll back half a century of advances.”

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