CHICAGO – AT&T Broadband workers rallied here April 29 to demand the right to organize. Joined by supporters from the Chicago-area labor movement, they cheered as AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka and other labor leaders vowed to fight ‘one day longer’ than AT&T.

Through a series of mergers and buyouts over the last several years, involving nonunion companies, AT&T Broadband has reduced the union percentage of its workforce to only 30 percent, and is driving down wages and working conditions for both groups. Union workers, members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 21, have been without a contract for three years. Now, the company is obstructing efforts by nonunion AT&T employees to organize with Local 21.

More than 2,500 AT&T Broadband workers are eligible to unionize. They deliver voice, video, cable television and data services to over 1.7 million consumers in northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana.

Trumka linked AT&T’s anti-union campaign to the policies of the Bush administration, charging that ‘Bush and his corporate allies like Enron and AT&T are waging war on working families.’ He said, ‘While our sons and daughters are fighting in wars, while our brothers and sisters are working to rebuild, Bush is taking away pensions, health care, and the right to join unions.’ This is ‘a disgrace, an outrage, a national shame,’ Trumka said. ‘We are sick and tired, and we won’t take it any more.’

Local 21 Business Representative Jerry Rankins agreed. He said, ‘Bush and his supporters are against working families. They don’t want workers to have a voice.’

‘What makes life better for workers can be summed up in one phrase: the right to organize!’ IBEW International Secretary-Treasurer Jeremiah O’Connor told the crowd.

‘Here’s the problem,’ said Local 21 President-Business Manager Ronald Kastner. ‘In addition to recent cuts of up to 20 percent of its workforce, AT&T Broadband wants to compete for market share, yet continues to pay low wages, not properly train its employees, contract out work, close down service centers, and generally undercut industry standards.’

Nonunion Broadband workers told the World their main concerns included safety, health and paid time off. ‘I was up on the ladder with a power line hanging over my head, when wind gusts nearly knocked me off the ladder,’ one young worker said. ‘But my supervisor said I had to keep working.’ To protect his safety, he said, ‘I had to get the customer to cancel the job!’

His co-worker said this year AT&T has more than doubled the amount he has to pay for health coverage. Another worker said the company is imposing sick-time rules that effectively make workers afraid to call in sick.

AT&T CEOs are getting 70 percent raises, and consumer cable rates have soared, while service complaints are widespread, 14-year Broadband worker Dave Rippinger said. CEO bonuses are based on numbers, he said, and to get these numbers, ‘they want us to check things, but not fix anything.’

AT&T is playing union and so-called ‘at will’ workers against each other, both union and nonunion workers told the World. Anthony Travis, an 18-year union AT&T worker, said, ‘If you don’t have a union, the company can give you a banana today, and they can take it away tomorrow. What working-class people need to understand is, we’re all in this together.’

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Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more.