Striking Wireless Workers Make Their Voices Heard

Tens of thousands of AT&T workers struck for three days in May, fighting for new contracts with the tenth-largest company in the U.S. Photo: Unity as AT&T Mobility

“Retail workers are basically told their entire lives that they’re never going to have any power in any way, in any facet of their lives,” says Will Blum, who works at an AT&T Mobility store in Boston.

But tens of thousands of cell-phone retail workers proved otherwise in May when they walked out on strike for three days, fighting for new contracts with the tenth-largest company in the U.S.

It was the first strike ever for 21,000 retail and call center workers and technicians in AT&T’s wireless division, Mobility. They were joined by 17,000 AT&T wireline workers in California, Nevada, and Connecticut, as well as DirecTV technicians in California and Nevada, who have since secured a tentative agreement.

The Communications Workers (CWA) want AT&T to preserve good union jobs. The company has been offshoring call center jobs to low-wage vendors and increasing its use of low-paying, non-union authorized retailers. The union is also battling health benefits cost increases, and trying to improve service by getting the telecom giant to invest in its core phone infrastructure.

Building to a strike required Mobility’s largest-ever contract mobilization. Workers across the country donned buttons and temporary tattoos, held informational pickets, to stores and call centers to demand the company “stop flushing” their jobs and commissions, and shared pictures on the union’s Unity at Mobility Facebook page. These actions have built a sense of solidarity among the union members at Mobility across 36 states.

TOGETHER AND UNIFIED

Everyone was out on strike at Ghiajara Paz’s Mobility store in the Bronx. “It’s an amazing feeling to have everybody together and unified for the first time,” said Paz, a sales support representative and union steward there.

One major source of frustration is the company’s sick-leave policy. Workers get a point for each day they’re out sick. If you get eight points in a year, you’re fired—even though the contract entitles workers to 10 sick days. “You would have lost your job before you can even use them,” said Tony Burse, a chief steward for Local 4900 in Logansport, Indiana.

That means, “if you’re sick, you can’t just call out—you have to go to the doctor,” said Paz. To avoid getting a point for a sick day, workers have to get a Family Medical Leave Act form when they return to work, then take it back to the doctor and get it filled out. And even then, the company might reject the claim if the doctor filled out one line wrong.

“When my kids were younger, when they were little babies, I would have to call out quite often,” said Zack Doyle, who works at a Mobility store in South Bend, Indiana. “Now, I’m scared to take a sick day.”

VANISHING JOBS

Boston Stores Ramped Up With Issue Campaign

One way that Mobility workers in Boston prepared for the strike was by organizing their own mini-campaign last fall about an issue that wasn’t on the bargaining table: their sales goals.

“That campaign got people accustomed to confronting management and taking collective action,” says Will Blum, a retail sales consultant at the company’s Northeast flagship store.

While visiting area stores in his role as a CWA Local 1298 steward, Blum kept hearing complaints about unrealistic sales goals. The company had recently imposed a new commission structure that eliminated flat-rate payments on sales. Instead, paychecks now depended on goals the company set unilaterally.

A good organizing issue is widely felt (a lot of people care about the problem), deeply felt (they care enough to take action)—and winnable. This one qualified. “We realized that the commission structure was set nationally, but the goals are set store by store,” Blum said, “so we could potentially get the goals changed in our stores.”

To start, he and other workers at four stores collected signatures on a petition to the district manager. After that was ignored, they organized a day of calls to the manager’s cell phone, demanding lower goals.

“This was by far the most resistance that our managers had ever seen, so that shook them,” says Blum. After the call-in day, management sent out an email promising to pay all Mobility store workers in New England the full upgrade bonus, no matter how many existing customers they got to upgrade their phones.

This bonus represents only a small part of workers’ commission, but it was a victory nonetheless. And in the four stores that had waged the campaign, sales goals were lowered in November and for several months thereafter.

Blum’s store was also given an extra $250-a-month bonus, which workers saw as an effort to buy off the most militant store. Rejecting this divide-and-conquer tactic, they organized a second call-in day to push for lower sales goals citywide.

CLIMBING THE STAIRCASE

This campaign dovetailed right into the contract mobilization. “We said, ‘We won a small victory, but if we actually want to get the big fish, we have to change our contract,’” Blum said. “So we moved from call-in actions to info picketing, and that’s what led us into the strike.”

Workers from those four stores, Blum said, were the most prepared to go on strike. “They had fewer fears and less panicky questions.”

New Book

Secrets of a successful organizer

A step-by-step guide to building power on the job. Buy Now. »

For example, workers in other stores were more apt to say they couldn’t afford to go on strike—“but people were using that fear to cover up for a deeper fear,” he said. “People often think that the scariest thing that can happen to a worker is missing pay, and obviously people do need to feed their kids and keep a roof over their heads.

“But it’s often the human relation that you have with your boss, where you feel your boss has power over you, that’s more frightening than the numbers in your bank account.”

One lesson he drew is that “militancy is like a staircase. People can take one big jump, but a lot of people need to walk up the staircase—and doing one thing really prepares you for the next.”

And even in the aftermath of the strike, he sees lasting effects from the sales-goal campaign. “The lack of reportable progress at the bargaining table has chipped away at some people’s sense of power,” Blum says. “They feel like we did this thing, but it didn’t actually work. But for the people who have actually won something through collective action, at those four stores, nobody questions whether they have power.”

The three-day strike was in part a test of strength for a workforce that has never struck before. Despite this inexperience, strike participation across the country was solid. Many stores shuttered; managers scrambled to keep others open.

In Indiana, Local 4900 reported that 98 percent of workers at Mobility call centers and retail stores struck. That included the 95 workers at the call center in Fort Wayne who handle outbound calls. At 2 p.m. on Friday, May 19, strike captains, stewards, and area reps blew whistles in the center, letting everyone know it was time to finish their calls and walk out.

“Job security is our biggest fear,” said Babette Rakoczy, who’s worked at the Fort Wayne center since 2007. Back then it was part of Centennial Wireless, which merged with AT&T in 2009, and there were 200 employees. CWA reports that AT&T has eliminated 12,000 call center jobs since 2011—nearly one-third of all its call center employees.

In the days before the walkout, Rakoczy, a steward, set up a question box on her desk to encourage co-workers to raise questions about the strike. Then she solicited answers from union leaders and reported back to members.

RAIN OR SHINE

To get out of the rain during the strike—and get under management’s skin—Local 4900 sent a big delegation of members to a local mall Mobility store where the area manager was working. Decked out in the union’s red shirts, they sat in the food court right next to the store and walked a number of highly visible laps.

Mobility store workers share the call-center workers’ concerns about job security. Nationally, 61 percent of all AT&T-branded stores are now third-party authorized dealers. “That’s scary, thinking that one day, this time next year, this place could close and turn into an authorized retailer,” said Burse, “where there’s less oversight, the wages are less, the benefits are little to nothing, there’s no union, there’s no voice.”

“As a store manager for authorized retail, I made less than I do now as a retail sales consultant,” said Denny McCluskey of the South Bend Mobility store. He first ran into the union during the 2015 wireline contract campaign, when members were picketing one of the nonunion stores he managed. “I told them I had no gripe,” he said: “‘You guys are out here fighting for good jobs.’”

“As the company grows, and buys DirecTV and Time Warner, we just want to grow with them,” Burse said. “But a lot of us feel like the company’s going to leave us before we leave them.”

Workers say they’re also dealing with constant changes to their commission structure, as well as stagnant pay despite a workload that has dramatically increased in recent years. At the bargaining table the union is pushing the company to agree it can’t unilaterally change the commission structure.

MORE WORK, LESS PAY

All the workers came off the job at the AT&T Mobility store in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. “Every year it seems like it’s gotten worse and worse as far as pay, health benefits, you name it,” said Ervin Abreu, who’s been with Mobility since 2008.

The Bensonhurst store is just a couple doors down from a unionized Verizon Wireless store. Despite fierce employer opposition, workers at six Verizon Wireless stores in Brooklyn joined CWA in 2014, and won a first contract as part of the 49-day Verizon strike last spring.

Colin Hull from the Verizon store joined the AT&T picket on his lunch break. “I came to support my AT&T brothers and sisters for the same reason we went on strike,” Hull said: “better pay and better conditions, and just to have that sisterhood and brotherhood.”

The Mobility workers are still without a contract as we go to print. The union reports little progress in bargaining. Whether a longer strike will be necessary to win remains to be seen.

In the meantime, workers say the strike gave them a taste of their own power. “There a new sense of pride,” said Burse. “The folks that are newer to the labor movement, newer to unions, they get it now: you stand up and fight.”

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #460, July 2017. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.