by John O’Reilly
“You see those trucks over there?” The striker pointed over the fence behind us to a parking lot. “Not even one of ‘em is moving today.”
Standing under a tent across the street from a shopping center in Carrboro, AT&T workers on their fourth day of a strike stood on their picket duty. The workers, along with nearly 20,000 across nine states in the South, had downed tools to bring the company to the table over contract talks. Represented by the Communications Workers of America, the AT&T workers in the so-called “wireline” division, meaning workers who install and service residential and business systems, not wireless phones, had been on strike since Saturday.
The strikers held signs that called on the company to negotiate in good faith. CWA maintains that the negotiators that AT&T sent to the bargaining table indicated that they were not authorized to actually bargain. This bizarre farce of a negotiating tactic, along with episodes of workers in Florida being disciplined for wearing CWA gear at work, allowed the union to declare an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) strike. Unlike an economic strike, workers on a ULP strike have the legal right to return to their jobs after the strike and cannot be permanently replaced. Converting economic demands into a ULP strike is a common union tactic to make workers feel more secure in holding the picket line firm.
Confidence was high on this picket line. One man cracked a joke towards a group of wiremen from a different company working on a pole across the street, egging them to “hit the AT&T wires by mistake” with a wink. The workers are highly skilled technicians and most of them have worked at the company for a long time. “You don’t get anything without a little bit of suffering,” one told me in reference to the strike. Another worker talked about how the strike was a long time coming and attributed the militancy to a change of union leadership at the national level. A tall white man, wearing sunglasses and speaking with quiet authority, he opined that the previous leadership slate, replaced in 2015, had been extremely reluctant to strike and this had led to AT&T negotiating progressively worse contracts for workers, knowing that the union would not down tools. The decision to strike was seen by everyone as a natural and necessary step to push back on the company’s greed.
On the other side of the shopping center, another group of picketers sat in chairs along the highway. These workers were wire technicians, a lower job category which AT&T created much more recently, making up to ⅓ less money than their counterparts across the parking lot. Their conditions are far worse and workers suspect that tasks which previously belonged to more long-term and better-paid technicians are being passed along to them. A grizzled technician with fading tattoos on his arms served as the strike captain. He was frank with his assessment of the strike, which was less favorable than the other group of workers. “Not promising,” was his response to my question about if the strike would end soon. “Look, we’re not going to stand for the lowest thing they’re going to offer us,” meaning the strike could drag on.
Among the lower-paid wire technicians, solidarity was harder to achieve. Nearly a quarter of their coworkers had crossed the picket lines to go to work. As I stood with them, one scab called to talk with a striker, a handsome black worker in his thirties. “Look, this is about my family, you know that,” I heard him say firmly before he walked away from the other pickets to convince the scab to down his tools. The picket captain shook his head.
When he returned from the phone call, we talked about the state of the job. Despite the fact that the strike was called specifically over ULPs, the worker and many others were honest about the many things about the job which spur them to be angry at the company. After a huge round of layoffs, wire technicians are being forced to work incredible amounts of overtime, from 6 day workweeks to 12 to 14 hour days. “I have to tell my seven year-old that I have to go into work on my day off or I will lose my job. I have to tell her ‘AT&T is more important to me than you,’” he said. The worst, the worker continued, was when management called you in and you could hear them at home with their children in the background.
Other issues that were not the focus of the strike additionally motivated the workers’ anger. In order to get bonuses for themselves, managers made it difficult for workers to get their tools required for their job. Strikers told me that they routinely have to buy their own tools, as management claims that there are shortages. “You don’t have the right tools for the job and then management disciplines you for low number,” a young worker told me, rolling his eyes. The brutal nature of North Carolina’s weather also was a factor for many. “If you have a four hour job and it’s pouring rain, you can’t just stop,” the picket captain told me, “But you can’t call in sick because we’re so understaffed, so if you get sick from the rain or extreme heat, you just have to come in.”
Underlying the workers complaints was a sense that there was more than just one factor motivating them to take action. While the CWA maintains the strike is over the stated ULPs, it was clear from speaking to AT&T workers that their demands were more than simply better bargaining. As is often the case, the working class’s aspirations don’t fit into simple, legalistic contract language.
As in every workplace struggle, despite management’s stone-walling and some bossheaded coworkers crossing the line, there are moments of beauty. The scab-convincer told me that his family surprised him by showing up at the picket, all wearing CWA’s uniform of red. “My wife and children made their own sign to support me,” he smiled. When workers are pushed down, their families are always the first to pay. But like the AT&T strikers, working class families were fighting back.
The way things turned out would be a surprise for all of the workers I spoke with. The next morning CWA announced that the strike was called off and all workers were to return to their jobs that day. In the fashion all too typical of union leadership, details about what exactly the deal made by AT&T negotiators and the union were few. But according to press releases by the CWA leadership there had been a “handshake deal” between the two parties, which was enough of a show of good faith to convince the leadership to end the strike. The workers I spoke with on the picket line all indicated that leadership promised they would not end the strike until there was a real proposal that included movement from the company. Details are still scant as I write this, so the exact nature of the deal will continue to emerge in the weeks to come.
One thing that stays with me though is the very real confidence divide between the two groups of workers I spoke with on picket duty. It’s no surprise that the group of older, white men who made up the more experienced and long-term employees had a very different perspective on the struggle than the younger, more diverse group of wire techs, most of whom had only been on the job for a few years. A key way that capitalists divide workers, even those with unions, is to create multiple job tiers. They then overload the lower tiers with harder work, over-exploiting them while expanding their roles within the workplace. This happens in every industry, from AT&T’s technicians, to the “adjunctization” of higher education, and the “Uberization” of transportation and food service work. A key lesson for organizers is to be able to maintain an eye on this problem and orient towards the workers who are most vulnerable to added exploitation, while articulating clearly how management’s divisive strategies harm all working people.
Editor’s Note: a tentative agreement was reached between AT&T and CWA on August 30th.
John O’Reilly (@lil_haywood) is an organizer and education worker in Durham