AT&T Says 20,000 Employees Begin Strike in U.S. East, West

AT&T Inc., the largest U.S phone company, said more than 20,000 land-line employees represented by the Communications Workers of America have begun a strike on the East and West coasts.

The West contract covers more than 17,000 employees in California and Nevada, while the East contract covers more than 3,000 in Connecticut, AT&T said today in a statement.

AT&T and its unions have clashed over everything from guaranteed weekend days off to wellness and health-care costs, though other factions represented by the CWA and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers have agreed to new contracts with the Dallas-based phone company.

“A strike is not in anyone’s best interest, and it’s unfortunate local union leaders in the West and East regions chose to take this action,” the company said in the statement.

Separately, AT&T reached a tentative agreement with the CWA in contract negotiations for more than 22,000 land-line employees in the southeastern U.S. In total, AT&T has completed agreements covering almost 48,000 land-line employees.

The company forged a deal with workers in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, according to the carrier. The contracts will be submitted to the CWA’s membership for a ratification vote, AT&T said.

That new three-year agreement, which replaces a contract that was set to expire on Aug. 9, includes pay increases in each year and “modest” pension increases, AT&T said. The company reached an accord with Midwest employees last month.

‘Unfair’ Practices

Current strikes on the East and West coasts are intended to dispute labor practices and aren’t attempts to negotiate wages or pensions, said Candice Johnson, a CWA spokeswoman.

“These strikes are centered around unfair labor practices, denying workers the right to engage in protected activity, such as union activity,” Johnson said in a telephone interview today.

East and West coast CWA units are looking for different things, Libby Sayre, a union representative, said.

On the West coast, the union took issue after AT&T altered work schedules for more than 3,000 technicians without bargaining, Sayre said. AT&T has also banned employees from wearing stickers and buttons related to contract requests or any other issue, she said.

‘Unilateral Changes’

On the East coast, the carrier has made “unilateral changes” to areas such as health care, Bill Henderson, president of CWA’s Local 1298 Connecticut unit, said.

“AT&T is trying to leverage that we’re in a bad economy and people need their jobs,” he said in a telephone interview.

AT&T “remains ready to negotiate,” and isn’t proposing any wage or benefit reductions, Marty Richter, an AT&T spokesman, said.

The average AT&T network technician in the current contract negotiations earns $133,000, comprising $90,000 in wages and $43,000 in benefits, he said. The average compensation for a call-center representative is $107,000, comprising $67,000 in pay and $40,000 in benefits, Richter said.

“Our goal throughout these negotiations has been to preserve high-quality middle class careers with wages and health-care benefits that are among the best in the country,” Richter said via e-mail today.

Sayre described the salary examples Richter provided as “extravagant” and an attempt to present AT&T employees as “overpaid.” She didn’t offer alternative figures.

AT&T and competitors such as Verizon Communications Inc. regularly bargain with unions over new contracts as rising network investment costs weigh on profit margins. More than half of AT&T’s employees are represented by the CWA, the IBEW or other unions, according to the company’s annual report.

AT&T shares fell less than 1 percent to $37.44 at the close in New York. The stock has climbed 24 percent this year.

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