AT&T and its Union: To Strike or Not to Strike
Will bosses at the Communications Workers of America sacrifice 40,000 of their members in an attempt to line their union’s coffers? Will they force these AT&T workers to strike in an attempt to bolster their own diminishing relevance?
As of midnight last Saturday four of AT&T’s 35 union contracts covering 40,000 of their 256,000 employees expired, but for the time being, workers remain on the job; Whether they eventually strike or not, remains to be seen. In the meantime union officials decided to keep their members working while they try to hammer out terms of a new contract.
There is nothing terribly unusual in these contract negotiations. AT&T is asking workers to pay more for health care premiums and co-payments, and seeking changes in antiquated work rules and job protection clauses. Many of the contract provisions they’re squabbling about were negotiated decades ago when AT&T was still a monopoly. For its part, the union is arguing for the status quo even though it knows the health care benefits AT&T workers receive are significantly more generous than those offered in virtually all other U.S. companies.
Here are a few facts the union refuses to acknowledge: AT&T’s landline business, the old telephone company, is a deteriorating business. Thousands of customers are disconnecting their phones every month and moving to mostly non-union cable and cell phone companies. The company needs significant cost concessions from the union because landline revenues and operating income are in a downward spiral. Obviously times have changed from the old telephone monopoly days, but AT&T’s union contracts have remained largely unchanged.
The union, too, is experiencing diminishing revenue in the form of dues collected from its members as AT&T continues to downsize its landline workforce. The union’s long-term survival is dependent upon its ability grow its number of dues paying members. The best way to increase members is to show that being a union member has significant advantages over not belonging to a union. Therefore, success against AT&T might enhance the union movement’s overall relevance in non-union companies. Where better to flex its muscle than in AT&T, which has a larger unionized fulltime workforce than any other U.S. company?
Union officials have much to consider before they call a strike, not the least of which is their failed strike against Verizon Communications late last summer. 45,000 Verizon workers walked off their jobs shortly after their contract expired last August and returned to work two weeks later without a contract. Why? Workers didn’t really want a strike. Most Verizon workers know they are well paid and have exceptional benefits. Workers essentially pressured their union to end the strike. They lost two weeks pay for nothing, and still have no new contract eight months later. Bottom line: The union bluffed and lost. The last thing the union wants is a similar outcome with AT&T.
As union membership continues to erode across the country and unions continue to become more and more irrelevant, AT&T’s union badly needs a win. They may be willing to endure a nasty strike to make a point for the overall union movement…an attempt to save unions from continuing to move along the path to obsolescence in the private sector. The question is whether AT&T’s union workers will support their union.
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