Southeast workers rally in Atlanta amid contract talks with AT&T

Hundreds of AT&T workers and union leaders rallied outside the telecommunication giant’s Midtown Center on Saturday for fair wages and job security.

The event was organized by the Communications Workers of America, which represents more than 150,000 AT&T technicians, customer service and call center representatives and retail store employees. About 20,000 workers across the nine Southeastern states, including 4,000 in Georgia, are negotiating their contracts with the company.

The four-year deal is set to expire at midnight Saturday.

Union officials recently described Saturday's protest as a dress rehearsal for a possible strike should negotiations collapse.

AT&T hasn’t commented on the state of talks but has said it doesn’t expect problems if there is a walkout.

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

Nick Hawkins, chief negotiator and assistant vice president of the group’s District 3, acknowledged some progress had been made over the last couple days on some of the bargaining issues but there had yet to be a meeting of the minds on some of the larger, more important issues, including the outsourcing of call-center jobs and member layoffs, wages and benefits.

Although an agreement appeared to be a long way off, the McDonough resident remained optimistic.

“We have enough strength to move the company forward on our priorities,” Hawkins said.

That strength showed up in numbers as employees, dressed in red, stepped from chartered buses from as many as nine states and as far away as Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida to show their support. Many, with small children in tow, carried white placards trumpeting their sentiment — “AT&T acting like a greedy monopoly,” “Fighting for the middle class,” “Honk if you support workers” — with the demonstration stretching for an entire block.

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

Felicia Stevens, a 44-year-old consumer sales rep from Charlotte, North Carolina; Heath Harrison, a 39-year-old lineman from Birmingham, Alabama; Shane Bell, a 49-year-old facility technician from Memphis, Tennessee, and Vickie Grace-Brown, a 53-year-old service representative from Bessemer, Alabama, was among them.

Grace-Brown, the mother of a 19-year-old college student and who has been with the company 34 years, said she was excited to see the large turnout.

“We’re the middle class,” she said. “We have to fight to make sure we can support our families and keep our health care. If we’ve got financial stability, we can have a better quality of life.”

Bell, who has been with AT&T for 14 years, said he wanted to show his support for CWA’s bargaining to get a good contract for all employees.

That would include, among other things, lower health care costs and job protection, he said.

“I’m not optimistic, but I think they have heard us and seen us and that hopefully will influence them to do the right thing,” Bell said. “There are people here from all nine states. That should send a strong message to the company that we are united, we’re all one. Injustice to one of us is injustice to all of us.”

Despite having recently reported second quarter profits of $3.7 billion and projecting a free cash flow of $8.8 billion, AT&T has eliminated more than 25,000 jobs since the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017, cutting 4,500 jobs in the second quarter of 2019.

Ed Barlow, a service technician from Riverdale and president of Atlanta Local 3204, said the company CEO promised that if the tax cuts bill passed, it would allow AT&T to bring on 7,000 hard hat jobs but has since reneged on that promise.

“We need job security, not layoffs,” he said. “We’re not looking for a raise. What good is a raise if we’re not guaranteed to be here tomorrow?”

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

Share of workers in unions, in Southeast

Kentucky: 11.4%

Alabama: 10.1%

Mississippi: 7.1%

Florida: 6.8%

Tennessee: 6.4%

Georgia: 5.6%

North Carolina 4%

South Carolina: 3.6%

US average: 10.5%

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics