AT&T employee contracts in Georgia expire Saturday as talks continue

Unionized workers authorize strike but near-term stoppage unlikely
The decline of AT&T’s landline business is a potential threat to the jobs of technicians who work on the wires connecting homes and businesses. (AJC file hoto)

The decline of AT&T’s landline business is a potential threat to the jobs of technicians who work on the wires connecting homes and businesses. (AJC file hoto)

With their four-year contract expiring Saturday, more than 20,000 AT&T workers – including 4,000 in Georgia – are bracing for high-stakes talks on a new pact.

The bargaining will be something of a litmus test for a union's bargaining strength in a time of economic crosswinds. From one direction, low unemployment makes skilled employees more valuable, while from the other, market forces and rapidly improving technology make many legacy jobs obsolete.

Last week, members of the Communications Workers of America's southeast region overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike if bargaining breaks down. Although the vote does not make a strike likely, it is ammunition for union negotiators if they don't think they can win a deal that their members will embrace, said Richard Honeycutt, vice president for CWA's District 3, which represents the region.

“It’s a last resort,” he said. “It’s when you are out of options.”

The telecommunications giant last year reported revenue of $170.8 billion and net income of $19.4 billion. The CWA represents about 700,000 workers, including more than 150,000 at AT&T.

The contract about to expire covers employees in customer service roles and technicians. Those technicians work with wire lines to homes and offices, including both voice and internet connections, the company said.

Talks between company and union representatives began late last month.

Neither side shared details of their opening offers and counter-offers. But if there is a standout issue, it is jobs – a concern spotlighted by Dallas-based AT&T’s announcement last month that it was cutting 1,800 positions.

In 2017, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson pledged to invest $1 billion and create 7,000 jobs if Congress passed the corporate tax cut plan, but the company has cut 23,000 jobs since then, according to Honeycutt. The company also uses contractors to do work that could be done by employees, he said.

One challenge for the union is that many of its workers are technicians in landline operations, a part of the business that is shrinking. AT&T argues that its job reductions have been compelled by the market, including changes in customer preferences.

The company lost about one-third of its voice lines for business and consumers between 2016 and 2018, a decline that is industry-wide, said Marty Richter, AT&T spokesman. "There are fewer jobs in parts of our industry that are declining and facing technology shifts."

When the need for workers declines, the company does try to cut without layoffs “when possible,” he said.

Moreover, the company is hiring in other areas, including a number of call centers, and many of those jobs are covered by the union, Richter said.

More than 30,000 workers at rival Verizon went a year without a contract, finally reaching an agreement last summer. The new Verizon contract provided an 11.2% pay hike for workers over four years.

AT&T has negotiated 19 labor agreements in the past two years, including five reached in June and July, and expects an agreement with District 3 as well, said Richter. He called the strike vote “very routine in negotiations of this sort.”

Still, the company always prepares for contingencies, Richter said. “Whether it’s hurricanes, floods, snowstorms or even a work stoppage, we’re always ready.”

Should there be a strike, the company would be forced to put managers, executives and other non-union employees in worker rolls, often requiring them to work long hours. And some long-time executives who came up through the ranks have experience with hands-on work. Typically, the company also prioritizes work, postponing non-essential repairs and construction until after the strike.

“A strike would definitely have an impact on customers,” Honeycutt said.

The context for the negotiations is a mixed one.

On one hand, union leverage has been steadily on the decline for decades. At its peak in 1954, the U.S. union movement represented nearly 35% of workers. Unions now represent just 10.5% of workers, and a much smaller share of private sector employees, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Moreover, the South has never been a bastion of union strength.

On the other hand, the negotiations take place with the U.S. unemployment rate at a half-century low and many employers complaining of worker shortages – a moment that should give workers more clout than times of high unemployment.

Share of workers in unions, in Southeast

US average: 10.5%

Alabama: 10.1%

Mississippi: 7.1%

Florida: 6.8%

Tennessee: 6.4%

Georgia: 5.6%

North Carolina 4%

South Carolina: 3.6%

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Short walkouts often go virtually unnoticed by the public. But during an extended strike, the company would press managers, executives and contractors into service. Companies would prioritize the work, so that emergency repairs get done, but new installations might not. In this case, neither union nor company is predicting a strike in the near term.