A crowd of red-shirted union picketers took to the streets downtown on Saturday morning (February 11), banging drums, chanting, and blowing on vuvuzelas outside an AT&T store at the corner of Third and Broadway.
"We're demonstrating to let people know that AT&T has a responsibility to keep good, middle-class jobs in the community," explained Roger Pena, a member of the Communication Workers of America. The union's contract, which covers 500 to 600 workers locally at the company's cellular services division and as many as 21,000 nationwide, expired last night.
"The company is proposing takebacks," Pena said, stating that the carrier was seeking to raise employees' health care costs in a new contract offering. "AT&T makes $163 billion in profits, and we're the people making it for them.
"We want them to bargain in good faith. We're not asking for anything more than what we already have, we just want to keep our jobs here in the community."
Another concern voiced by the union was the outsourcing of jobs, either by moving call centers overseas (Pena himself works at such a center resolving billing disputes) or by hiring non-union field technicians as independent contractors at lower pay rates.
In addition to the latest negotiation breakdown, 17,000 workers in California and Nevada in the company's "core" business division have been without a contract for nearly ten months. Saturday, workers voted to authorize a strike, though no work stoppage was announced.
"During the rain, we had our technicians working mandatory 14-hour days to keep the phones working," said Pena. "We just want to serve our customers, give them access to our products.
"We're not looking for the whole pie, we just want a slice. AT&T's CEO made $17 million last year, we think they can afford a fair contract."
UPDATE 2/14, 5:05 a.m.
AT&T spokesperson Marty Richter says, "The two sides have agreed to a contract extension. The ongoing negotiations reflect the spirit of the longstanding relationship between the company and the union. Employees will work under the terms of the extended contract while negotiations continue.
"The contract covers good-paying U.S. jobs averaging nearly $70,000 a year in pay and benefits, with some averaging over $115,000. We’re not proposing to cut anyone’s pay, or take away their benefits. We’re continuing to negotiate with the union, and we’re confident a fair agreement can be reached.
"We’re a union-friendly company, with more full-time, union-represented employees than any company in America. We’re the only major wireless company with a unionized workforce — 43,000 strong — and we added wireless union jobs last year.
"Our labor agreements include annual wage increases, and we’re confident employees will be better off financially in their new contract."