In the early morning sunshine of August 8th, a dozen men with picket signs stood outside the AT&T central office on Franklin Street in Fort Bragg. The men were on the second day of a two-day Communication Workers of America (CAW) union approved strike. They were part of a larger district-wide effort to bring attention to the slow pace of contract negotiations with AT&T, having worked without a contract since April. Accompanying the union workers were three young relatives, aged nine to eleven who took a break from their summer vacation to carry signs and participate in a civics lesson in support of two generations of AT&T workers — their uncles and grandfather — in their demands for a fair deal. One sign read “CEO Randall (Stevenson) makes $50,000 a day” alongside a picture of a rat.
The problem arises with AT&T, which turned a $12 billion profit last year, holding fast to its insistence that employees take on more of the cost of healthcare. Before 2009, the cost of healthcare benefits were the responsibility of the company and included as part of the contract. In 2009, workers agreed for the first time to contribute a monthly fee toward healthcare insurance. In contract negotiations currently under consideration, the corporation has proposed that employees pay an incremental increase over the three-year contract, beginning with a 17% increase the first year and adding a 5% increase each succeeding year.
Union officials want the contributions of workers to remain at the current rate. They contend that the increased costs will nullify the benefit of a 2% pay raise offered under the new contract. Additionally, despite the financial health of AT&T, the company is not filling many vacant positions with the result that workers are taking on more work and required to take on more specialized tasks without a corresponding pay increase.
According to Assistant Chief Steward of Local 9400, Bob Ferri, since October 2010, company policy has been to force workers to take on the extra workload caused by short staffing by writing up employees who refused, citing “attendance occurrences.” Several such instances could result in a day’s suspension for the hapless worker. Previously, extra work assignments had been voluntary.
At one point in the demonstration, Ferri walked across the street to the office of the local newspaper, The Fort Bragg Advocate News, in an attempt to interest the staff in the union’s complaint. He was told by the receptionist at the front desk that the paper “was aware of their presence but could not pull away any reporters from their prior commitments” as the paper was in deadline mode.
Another sticking point at the bargaining table is the non living wage paid to technicians installing what is known in the industry as “premier services” now available in urban areas. This involves the recent (five-year old) technology of Uverse and high definition TV and telephone services that require additional training. At $22 per hour many technicians are compelled to take on second jobs to meet the rising costs of living in those urban areas.
The union has also filed charges against AT&T with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for suspending workers for a day who wore union shirts and buttons to work in four separate incidents. Such actions are protected as “concerted activities” under the federal National Labor Relations Act. AT&T has a strict dress code for employees who interface with the public.
Union representative Ferri, whose area covers the expanse of five counties, stated that although no response to the strikes had been forthcoming from an AT&T spokesperson, the public had been very supportive through waves and car honks. He felt that the time was well spent in mobilizing membership to push back through their collective show of solidarity at their dissatisfaction with the handling of the negotiations.
District 9, the district involved in the current bargaining talks, encompasses most of California as well as parts of Nevada and includes employees of both Pacific Bell and Nevada Bell. Should a General Strike be deemed unavoidable by union representatives, it could involve as many as 18,000 employees.
It appears that the concept of “tightening the belt” is as appealing to American workers as austerity measures are to their European counterparts. That is, not at all. The “trickle down” philosophy that was in vogue with many economists of the past century and taken up once again by conservative American politicians seems to have been supplanted recently by what the history books of tomorrow may refer to as the failed (from down here, anyway) “gusher up” economics of greed capitalism.