With the clock ticking to the midnight Saturday expiration of a 14-state AT&T contract covering 21,000 workers, local members of the Communications Workers of America rallied outside an AT&T call center in Bloomington Friday morning. On Saturday, the company and union announced the contract would be extended while talks continued.
"Under a contract extension that can be terminated with 72 hours’ notice, workers will continue to bargain with the expectation that AT&T executives will come to the table with good faith proposals that protect family-supporting American jobs and invest in the country where customers have made the company a $250 billion telecom giant," CWA said in a statement.
Friday's rallies, which took place across the nation, called attention to the issues in the bargaining. In addition to demonstrating in Bloomington, Minnesota CWA members boarded a bus to visit other AT&T facilities and retail stores in the Twin Cities.
“We’re showing support and that we’re ready to walk,” said Dave Barthels, president of CWA Local 7200. “We had a strike vote and an overwhelming 93 percent authorized a strike.”
“They make billions of dollars and yet they want to continually cut wages and benefits,” said Shari Wojtowicz, president of CWA Local 7250. “It’s hard for someone to make AT&T a career when they treat their workers so poorly.”
CWA Local 7200 organized the workers at the Bloomington call center, 7900 Xerxes Ave. S., 10 years ago, Barthel said. About 235 members of Local 7200 work there, occupying two floors of the office building and handling business calls for AT&T Mobility. Brian Gnerer, Burnsville, is one of those workers.
“We’re willing to fight for a fair cause and a fair contract,” said Gnerer, who has worked for AT&T about four years and works in business receivables management. He also is a CWA Local 7200 union steward.
“Look at the higher-ups at AT&T and what they’re making compared to what we’re making,” he said. “Let’s disperse this wealth to some of the people who actually are working for it.”
Gnerer said workers in his unit start out at $12-$13 per hour and max out at $18.57 per hour. Meanwhile, the chairman and CEO of AT&T, Randall Stephenson, received a total compensation package exceeding $25 million in 2015, according to Morningstar.
In addition to CWA Local 7200’s AT&T call center employees in Minnesota, the expiring contract also covers workers at 27 retail stores in Minnesota, who are members of CWA Local 7250. Together, CWA Local 7200 and Local 7250 represent about 600 AT&T members in Minnesota.
CWA Local 7250 member Larry Thompson, Oakdale, works as a retail sales consultant at the AT&T store in St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood. “They’re asking us to do more every year,” Thompson said. “The expectation of work goes up." At the same time, AT&T’s ability to unilaterally change the commission structure for retail sales consultants means those workers have been earning less and less every year.
“For me, you’re looking at $2,500 less every year,” said Thompson, who has worked 8 years at AT&T. He said a co-worker’s pay has dropped by $19,000 over the last several years. “The company reported a profit of $13 billion and yet can’t offer the employees a fair wage,” Thompson said.
He said AT&T also wants to cut in half the number of paid sick days, from 10 days to five days, and increase employee health insurance costs by 32 percent. Thompson said declining pay and increasing health costs make setting a family budget — and planning for mortgage payments or car payments — very difficult. “I’ve got three kids,” Thompson said, “try to figure this out.”
In addition to wages and benefits, outsourcing is another issue in the contract negotiations. According to a news release from CWA, “since 2011, AT&T has chosen to cut more than 8,000 call center jobs and offshore thousands of jobs to Mexico, the Philippines, India, the Dominican Republic and other countries. Meanwhile, the company has outsourced the operation of more than 60 percent of its wireless retail stores to low-wage, low-quality 3rd party dealers.”