Why 20,000 AT&T Workers Went on Strike

About 20,000 AT&T workers, or 8% of the telecommunication giant’s workforce, walked off the job in nine southeastern states over the weekend, marking the most significant strike in the industry in more than two years.

The striking workers, mainly technicians and customer service representatives in AT&T’s traditional wired phone and Internet business, are seeking better health care benefits and stronger job security, among other requests, after their prior four-year contract expired earlier this month.

The Communications Workers of America union that represents the strikers says AT&T is not bargaining in good faith in talks for a new contract that started in June. “Our talks have stalled because it has become clear that AT&T has not sent negotiators who have the power to make decisions so we can move forward toward a new contract,” CWA District 3 vice president Richard Honeycutt said in a statement.

The strikers work in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. Workers in AT&T’s wireless business and other parts of the country aren’t involved.

AT&T says its team is bargaining just as it has in many prior negotiations that led to contract agreements. “We listen, engage in substantive discussions, and share proposals back and forth until we reach agreement,” an AT&T spokesman said in a statement. “That’s why we’re surprised and disappointed that union leaders would call for a strike at this point in the negotiations.”

The union said it filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board against AT&T for not sending representatives with authority to make decisions at the bargaining table. AT&T says it strongly disagrees with the claim.

At midday on Tuesday, shares of AT&T were essentially unchanged from Friday’s close. The stock is up 28% so far in 2019, outpacing the 15% gain in the S&P 500 Index.

Despite the strong stock performance at AT&T and its rivals, the traditional telecommunications industry remains under pressure, with the number of landline phone lines shrinking every year. And the cable industry is gaining market share from the telecom carriers in the still-growing broadband Internet market, adding to the pressure.

That has led to some ugly confrontations with the unions, particularly during the 49-day strike by Verizon workers in 2016. But AT&T has generally had smoother dealings with its unionized workforce, concluding some 20 contract agreements covering 89,000 employees since 2017. Still, the company has occasionally had problems. Several groups of workers went on short strikes in 2017, seeking better pay and retirement benefits and strong job security guarantees.

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