ORLANDO, Fla. - More than 150 CWA members and community allies held a rally and picket here Aug. 2 to pressure AT&T to negotiate a fair contract with its workers. Around 1,200 members of Orlando's CWA Local 3108 and a total of 23,000 CWA members in the South have been working without a contract since midnight, Aug. 4, when their current agreement with the telecommunications mega-corporation expired.
Important issues for the CWA members include large increases in health care costs proposed by the company (such as raising their health plan's deductible from $750 to over $2,000) and the outsourcing of local call center jobs overseas, said Louis Smith, Local 3108 communications director. About one-third of Local 3108 members are service technicians while the other two-thirds work in call centers.
"If we don't settle, we could strike," said Smith, adding that even if the CWA members wound up temporarily working without a contract, they're still "fighting for the rights of the working people [who] provide the billions of dollars of profits that AT&T makes."
Local 3108 President Steve Wisniewski told the workers, many of whom wore red-T-shirts and carried signs proclaiming they were "Fighting for the American Dream," that AT&T "is manufacturing a crisis that simply doesn't exist" so it can squeeze them while making billions in profits every quarter. "They're trying to take away our benefits, slash our health care, trying to underfund our pensions," he said.
"It's about corporate America riding roughshod over working families and the middle class, and we're here to say, enough!" said Wisniewski. "We're here to stand together and tell AT&T we want a fair contract."
AT&T reported profits of $3.9 billion in the second quarter of 2012, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution (July 24, 2012). That's a 9 percent increase in profits over the same quarter in 2011. AT&T's first quarter 2012 profits were about $3.6 billion, according to CNBC (April 24, 2012).
"We're tired of the lay-offs, we're tired of the company 'surplussing' their employees, giving away good jobs to overseas companies," said James Sanchez, executive vice president of Local 3108. "We've built AT&T to what it is today. We deserve good health care, good wages and secure jobs."
Sanchez, who has worked for AT&T for seven years, is a former service technician who was forced to take an office job with lower pay, which he said caused financial stress for his family. Sanchez said he is tired of the company's promises to return him to his old job when the economy improves, noting that the company has reported record profits.
The company's total 2011 profits were about $4.2 billion and around $20.2 and $12.4 billion in 2010 and 2009, respectively. The lower 2011 profits were in part due to $4.2 billion in expenses related to AT&T's failed merger with cellular service provider T-Mobile.
AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson was paid total compensation of $22 million in 2011, according to CNNMoney.
Former Congressman Alan Grayson, D-Fla., attended the rally. Grayson said he came "to show my support for the middle class; for people who deserve benefits, deserve decent pay, deserve a good life."
"We're a rich country," Grayson said. "We can afford pensions, we can afford health care, we can afford sick leave, we can afford paid vacations."
Grayson, whose parents were union teachers in New York City, said, "it's my parents' union health coverage that kept me alive when I was a sick child. That's what these people are fighting for-the lives of their own families."
Grayson is a candidate for Florida's U.S. House District 9, which is comprised of parts of Central Florida's Orange and Osceola counties.
State Rep.-Elect Victor Torres, D-Orlando, also attended the rally.
"I'm out here to support my fellow union members," said Torres, a bus driver and member of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1596. He said the workers deserve a fair contract "while AT&T is making billions-let's share that with the employees."
Other groups and unions with a presence at the event included Central Florida Jobs with Justice (JWJ), the Student-Labor Action Project (SLAP) at the University of Central Florida, Organize Now!, Florida New Majority, the Alliance of Retired Americans, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.
The AT&T workers have agreed to a contract extension until 11:59 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 9, while negotiations with the company continue, according to the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal.
The newspaper reported that the two sides "have reached tentative agreements on some pay and benefits proposals, but several major issues remained unresolved. Sticking points have included sick pay, returning outsourced work, limits on forced overtimes, vacation accrual and a Sunday premium pay scale."
"For example, the union said AT&T has withdrawn its proposal that would have eliminated Sunday premium pay. The union said it has rejected a proposal to add a temporary employee classification."
After the rally, members of JWJ and SLAP headed to a nearby Verizon store where they attempted to present the company with a cake to mark the one-year anniversary of 45,000 CWA and IBEW members in the northeast and mid-Atlantic states working without a contract. The cake was sugar-free "because working at Verizon is not a sweet deal," said SLAP member Jazmine Salas.