More than 35,000 AT&T workers began a weekend-long strike Friday after their union accused the Dallas-based company of failing to make a fair proposal during contract negotiations.
Just over half the employees work for the company’s wireless business, primarily in call centers and retail stores, and have been without a long-term contract since February.
The union, the Communications Workers of America, complains that AT&T is sending call-center jobs overseas and diverting retail jobs to authorized retailers not owned by the company and not unionized, and where wages and benefits are lower.
“At the end of the day, this is about good jobs,” said Robert Master, a union official. “We are not engaged in a productive exchange here.”
The union estimates that AT&T has cut 12,000 U.S. call-center jobs since 2011 while creating many such jobs overseas, but Master said the company had rebuffed a request for data that would clarify the extent of the practice and other changes to its workforce.
Workers are also frustrated that they are being asked to pay more of their health-insurance costs, he added, and that changes in retail workers’ commissions have limited or reduced their take-home pay. As part of its next contract, the union wants to bar AT&T from changing its commission structure unilaterally.
Marty Richter, an AT&T spokesman, said the company was offering the wireless workers wage and pension increases and called the willingness to strike “baffling.” He said AT&T sales workers were well paid by industry standards, citing an average of more than $68,000 in annual pay and benefits, roughly twice the figure for retail workers as a whole, according to PayScale, a company that tracks salary data.
Richter said AT&T was well prepared for a potential strike. The company has “a substantial contingency workforce of well-trained managers and vendors in place,” he said in an email, as well as the ability to reroute calls to unaffected call centers.
With more than 200,000 employees in the United States, AT&T is the country’s largest telecom company.
In addition to the call center and retail workers, the strikers include more than 15,000 employees on the company’s wireline side — which includes landlines and internet service — as well as about 2,000 employees of DirecTV, which the company acquired in 2015.
As at most telecommunications companies, AT&T’s wireless business is growing faster and is more profitable than its wireline side. One of its rivals, T-Mobile, is strictly wireless, which some analysts say gives it an advantage in a rapidly approaching future in which many customers will receive both phone and video service over wireless networks alone.
AT&T is also the only telecom company with a major union presence in its wireless business.