The Communications Workers of America (CWA) on Thursday voted to authorize a strike amid negotiations with AT&T over a contract covering more than 8,000 AT&T Southwest Mobility workers.
The vote was supported by 98% of those workers, though it doesn’t mean a strike is imminent.
The current contract covers workers in Texas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas. Overall, it represents less than 3% of AT&T employees, according to the carrier.
CWA said employees will continue to work under their current contract until it’s set to expire Friday, while the union continues to bargain with AT&T.
“AT&T Mobility workers in the Southwest are not afraid to do whatever it takes to make sure that the company invests in its employees so that we can build and support the next generation networks that our communities need,” said Jason Vellmer, a CWA Staff Representative, who is leading the bargaining team, in a statement. “We have made progress toward a fair contract over the last few days, but several critical issues remain unresolved. This strike authorization vote lets AT&T know that the bargaining team has the full support of our members as we work toward a new contract that protects our healthcare, improves wages, and keeps family-supporting, union jobs in the region.”
AT&T indicated that a strike vote is not an uncommon occurrence when it comes to contract negotiations.
“A strike vote is a routine, not unexpected step in negotiations of this sort and is often a part of the process. We’re continuing to bargain with the union, and we’re committed to reaching a fair agreement that will allow us to continue to provide solid union-represented jobs with competitive wages and benefits. We’re confident an agreement will be reached,” said AT&T spokesperson Jim Kimberly in a statement emailed to FierceWireless.
Strikes have occurred in the recent past though, including 20,000 CWA members at AT&T Southeast striking last summer after their contract expired. In 2017, nearly 40,000 AT&T employees walked off the job in a three-day strike after negotiations with CWA hit an impasse.
Opposition to Elliot Management
CWA in its press release reiterated opposition to certain AT&T decisions since the operator was targeted by activist investor Elliot Management last year. Elliot bought a $3.2 billion stake in the carrier in September and blasted AT&T for what it considered poor execution on strategic opportunities and business management.
The union said Elliot is “pushing AT&T to extract profits from the company by eliminating jobs, outsourcing work, and divesting critical assets,” and claims the carrier continues to cater to these demands, including a commitment to spend $30 billion on stock buybacks.
AT&T has been taking steps to meet goals of a three-year financial plan it set out last October and last month said it achieved goals for 2019, including reducing debt, growing earnings per share and generating free cash flow.
The three-year plan in part calls for growing wireless service revenues 2% annually and paying down debt through things like asset sales. For example, AT&T sold its mobility operations in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands for $1.95 billion.
When it comes to jobs specifically, CWA said AT&T had cut its workforce by 4,040 jobs in the fourth quarter of 2019 and 37,818 jobs since the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) went into effect in 2018.
CWA issued a press release about the job cuts in late January, and in a statement to FierceTelecom at the time AT&T said, “Like any business, we must align our workforce with the needs of our customers and the business. To the extent possible, we manage these staff adjustments through retirements and voluntary departures, and we help affected employees find other positions within the company. For those who can’t, we offer them severance pay and outplacement services.”
Speaking on the company’s Q4 earnings call, AT&T COO John Stankey mentioned AT&T was looking to lower labor costs while improving operational efficiency.
During the call he reiterated to investors that the company is targeting an additional 4% in labor-related costs, including benefits and contract employees, in 2020 alone.
"That work will ramp quickly and we plan for it to deliver $1.5 billion in additional cost savings,” Stankey said.