By MATT MASTERS
For the past few days protestors have been picketing outside of the AT&T corporate building on Franklin Road in Brentwood as part of a nine-state strike over claims of unfair labor practices.
The striking workers are members of Communications Workers of America, a union whose members in the Southeastern district, also known as District 3, went on strike at 11 p.m. on Friday night.
Many of the union members have worn red shirts and carried signs up and down the sidewalk or posted outside of the main gate of the property, waving to honking passersby.
None of the demonstrators would speak on record about their grievances, but Deborah Sisco, President of CWA 3808, the local Communications Workers of America chapter detailed the dispute.
“It is an unfair labor practice against AT&T for not sending negotiators to the bargaining table that can actually make a decision,” Sisco said.
Sisco said that the strike came about when the union felt like it was getting no where in negotiations over a new contract.
According to Sisco, the previous contract was negotiated in 2015 and expired on Aug. 3 before it was extended until Aug. 10. She said that workers had been working without a contract until the multi-state strike began on Friday.
“There have been instances where we have had agreements with people at the table and once they’ve taken it back to Dallas, Texas, where the head-honchos sit, they have said, ‘no we can’t agree to this,’ so then they’ve come back to the table and said, ‘oh, no, never mind, we can’t do that,’” Sisco said. “So if I can’t negotiate with you, then why am I talking with you?”
AT&T spokesperson Jim Kimberly disputed CWA’s claims, saying in an email that AT&T has reached 20 fair agreements since 2017 covering more than 89,000 employees.
“We strongly disagree with the union’s claims of unfair labor practices. Our bargaining team is negotiating this contract with CWA leaders in the same way we have successfully done with dozens of other CWA contracts over the years. We listen, engage in substantive discussions and share proposals back and forth until we reach agreement,” Kimberly said.
Sisco said that District 3 employees about 22,000 people and that the district, which includes Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana and Mississippi, has a strong union representation among workers.
“We’ve had 99.9 percent participation in this work stoppage,” said. “Very few people are crossing the line.”
Sisco said that the strike involves employees throughout the company including technicians and customer service representatives, with the exception of AT&T mobility employees at stores who are under a different contract.
Sisco stressed that this is an unfair labor practice strike and not an economic strike, with the goal of actually coming to an agreement on the union’s ability to bargain.
“We haven’t been out on strike since 1983, so it’s been several years since we’ve had to take this measure,” Sisco said. “Nobody really wants a strike. We hope we can come together with an agreement, you know, we have a long-standing relationship with AT&T as far as having a bargaining agreement for 50 years.”
Both sides have expressed interest in finding a solution to the strike and the two sides have continued to discuss the matter, although both sides continue to defend their positions.
“A strike is in no one’s best interest,” Kimberly said. “We remain ready to sit down with union leaders to negotiate a new, improved contract for our employees. Our bargaining team is negotiating this contract with CWA leaders in the same way we have successfully done with other CWA contracts over the years. We listen, engage in substantive discussions and share proposals back and forth until we reach agreement. That’s why we’re surprised and disappointed that union leaders would call for a strike at this point in the negotiations, particularly when we’re offering terms that would help our employees — some of whom average from $121,000 to $134,000 in total compensation [would] be even better off. We’re prepared for a strike and will continue working hard to serve our customers.”
Kimberly added that the Southeast contract, of which Tennessee is a part of, covers less than 8 percent of AT&T’s employees, and that AT&T is prepared to work through the strike while continuing services for their employees.
“We have systematically and thoroughly planned for a potential work stoppage and we have a substantial contingency workforce of well-trained managers and vendors in place,” Kimberly said.
As the strike continues, Sisco said that they have seen community support across District 3, even gaining the attention of politicians, including presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who walked the picket line with workers in Kentucky on Sunday.
“We’ve had a lot of community support. People have stopped by picket demonstrations and brought food or just words of encouragement,” Sisco said.