If negotiators cannot reach a last-minute accord, the A&T contract with 20,000 workers in th8e Southeast will expire at midnight Saturday. (AJC file photo).

Union workers rally Saturday as AT&T contract deadline nears

Union workers from around the Southeast plan to rally Saturday with their AT&T contract hours from expiration and negotiators apparently far from a new accord.

The event is described by union officials as a dress rehearsal for actions that union members will take if a collapse of negotiations leads to a strike.

“A strike is something we don’t want to resort to,” said Ed Barlow, president of Local 3204 in the Communications Workers of America. “But I am confident that the members are committed. We’ll do what we have to do.”

The four-year deal which is about to expire covers 20,000 workers – mostly technicians and customer service representatives – who work in the Southeast. Union officials say the key issues are job security and healthcare costs.

Workers could stay on the job without a contract, even if negotiators fail to reach a deal. Both sides could also agree to extend the current contract.

For example, more than 30,000 Verizon workers went a year without a contract before reaching an agreement last summer.

But the two sides are gearing up for the worst: Union members are conducting classes in how to handle a strike. AT&T managers and executives are readying to take on blue-collar roles.

Union officials acknowledge that short-term operations would likely run smoothly without their workers, though hundreds of union workers on the overnight shift could walk off the job if a strike is called.

Union officials say the company will need to postpone non-urgent work, such as new installations.

AT&T won’t comment on the state of talks, but it says it doesn’t expect problems if there is a walkout.

“Preparing for contingencies is all part of what we do for customers,” said Marty Richter, an AT&T spokesman. “It’s in nobody’s best interest to have a strike and we are confident that we’ll reach a fair agreement.”

As the end of the contract approached, workers were aware of job cuts, especially a layoff announced in June. Most of the workers in Local 3204 are older, more experienced employees who remember an earlier era of robust growth in telecommunications.

Their relationship to the company is different now, said Olga Terrell, 43, of Stonecrest, who works in an AT&T mail room. She started with the company in 1998, and her union job helped her put her daughter through college and grad school.

“It saddens me because the company says they need you, but then they give you a hard time in negotiations even to let you maintain what you have,” she said.

The national union has been stockpiling money to help strikers with their bills, but that is, at best, only a cushion, Terrell said.

“A strike is a possibility,” she said. “But it is definitely not good to go out on strike.”

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