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Just ahead of Labor Day, AT&T workers participated in the South's largest private-sector strike in a decade.

Over 20,000 AT&T Southeast workers went on strike in nine Southern states beginning August 23, protesting unfair labor practices committed by AT&T management during contract negotiations, the Communications Workers of America announced in a press release.

The striking employees had been bargaining with AT&T since before August 3rd, when contracts were slated to end, and had been working without a contract since August 10th, according to CWA Communications Director Beth Allen.

Separately, CWA members in Florida initiated a strike on August 22 after filing an unfair labor practice charge against the company. AT&T had disciplined members there for wearing union sleeves on their arms, and had participated in other activities illegal under the National Labor Relations Act.

The CWA is a large union representing telecom and news media workers, as well as those in several other industries, in 10,000 communities across the United States. CWA's District 3 encompasses Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina, North Carolina and Puerto Rico.

AT&T workers scored this win in a region that, generally speaking, proves a hostile place for labor organizing.

"We entered these negotiations prepared to bargain in good faith with AT&T to address our members' concerns and to work together to find solutions," said CWA District 3 Vice President Richard Honeycutt. "Our talks have stalled because it has become clear that AT&T has not sent negotiators who have the power to make decisions so we can move forward toward a new contract."

Four days and dozens of picket lines later, CWA negotiators made a "handshake" deal with AT&T, reaching a tentative agreement on a 5-year contract that includes wage increases of 13.25%, pension and 401k plan enhancements, improved job security, and more customer service positions.

Employees will also see no increase in health care cost sharing percentage, and will be able to contribute to a Health Savings Account. Per CWA procedures, the tentative agreement will soon go out to members for a vote.

AT&T workers scored this win in a region that, generally speaking, proves a hostile place for labor organizing.

"You can trace the history of labor exploitation in the Southeast from slavery, to Jim Crow, to right-to-work  laws that developed after World War II and into the Cold War," said Erik Gellman, Associate Professor of History at UNC Chapel Hill and contact for the Southern Labor Studies Association. This trajectory has "cast a really long, oppressive shadow over any kind of working class rights or dignity in those particular states."

CWA workers in Atlanta rally on August 3, 2019 to support contract negotiations. Photo courtesy of CWA.

Yet, Gellman noted, the South has a long history of worker resistance against restrictive labor regimes. He pointed to the seven years of Reconstruction which saw large scale working class participation in post-Civil War interracial democracy, as well as Operation Dixie, the campaign by the Congress of Industrial Organizations to unionize the textile industry in the South after World War II.

CWA has Southern roots, too. The organization was first established as the National Federation of Telephone Workers at a 1938 convening in New Orleans. The group became a national union under the banner of the Communications Workers of America at a convention in Miami nine years later.

"What's exciting about the contemporary South and the labor movement is you see working class people coming together at a grassroots level," Gellman said. He explained that historians like Robert Korstad have described this sort of activism in the past using the term "Civil Rights Unionism."

It is "more than just bread and butter contracts, arbitration, wages; it's a struggle for dignity, it's a struggle for rights in the workplace," Gellman went on. "I think this CWA strike of AT&T represents that."

Gellman noted, too, that many larger strikes now are among workerswhose labor cannot easily be outsourced elsewhere, such as hospitality and healthcare employees. Many of the striking AT&T workers were technicians who do wireline repairs: tasks that cannot be taken on by workers far away.

"It's a struggle for dignity, it's a struggle for rights in the workplace."

However, there are other jobs that AT&T has outsourced at an alarming pace. In recent years the company has closed dozens of call centers in the U.S. and opened new ones overseas.  Amid the AT&T strike in the Southeast, a delegation of CWA members travelled to the Philippines, building solidarity with AT&T contracted workers there whom the company has treated unfairly. 

Natalie Santiago, Executive Vice President of Miami's CWA chapter, said of the trip: "We came to investigate where AT&T is sending its calls. We knew a lot were going to the Philippines. What we've found is that AT&T is preying on workers here. They're getting paid less than $2 an hour and don't have basic rights."

For the duration of the strike in the Southeast, AT&T call center employees in the Philippines monitored call volumes, in case AT&T attempted to route calls that would have been taken by striking workers to these centers overseas.

AT&T has slashed more than 23,000 jobs since receiving a significant tax cut in 2017, even though it had lobbied for President Trump's sweeping tax reform by asserting that the company would produce thousands of jobs. Meanwhile, the company has experienced major gains: the tax cuts helped produce a $19 billion profit in the fourth quarter in 2017 and $3 billion in tax savings last year. In June of 2019, AT&T cut nearly 2,000 jobs, 911 of which were based in the Southeast.

"If you were to visit any work center or call center across District 3, you would discover that your employees, our members, are not treated with the respect they have earned and deserve," said Honeycutt in opening remarks to AT&T ahead of the contract negotiations that began in June.

"As far as mutual responsibility goes," he continued, "this has unfortunately become a one-way street."

Carly Berlin

Carly Berlin is a freelance writer and educator based out of New Orleans. You can find more of her work on her website, carlyberlin.com.