About 20,000 AT&T workers in California, Nevada and Connecticut went on strike Tuesday to protest what their union says is the company's unfair labor practices, including trying to negotiate contracts directly with employees.
The strike, set for two days, involves 17,000 customer service, installation and maintenance employees in California and Nevada, and 3,000 employees in Connecticut.
The strike came on the same day that AT&T Inc. reached a tentative agreement with other union workers in its land-line business.
Paperwork is being finalized on three-year deals with the Communication Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in the Southeast that involve wage boosts and "modest pension increases," AT&T said. The deal affects 22,000 employees in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.
But the company has not been able to reach a pact with the Communication Workers of America's West and East regions. The company and the CWA have been negotiating a new contract since February.
In June, an unknown number of workers in California and Nevada walked off the job to protest a memo that the union says impugned their work performance. That work stoppage lasted a day and wasn't as broadly organized as Tuesday's.
At issue in the negotiations are job protection clauses and healthcare premiums and co-payments. AT&T says it wants employees to shoulder more of their growing healthcare costs and wants more leeway to downsize its shrinking land-line operations. Some of its workers have contracts that guarantee them job offers at different parts of the company if they're laid off.
In a statement, AT&T said the workers already have "high-quality middle-class careers with wages and healthcare benefits that are among the best in the country."
"These employees are very well compensated, and they will continue to be," the company said.
"The average AT&T network technician in these contracts makes $133,000 in wages and benefits, and the average AT&T call center representative makes $107,000," AT&T spokesman Marty Richter said. "We're not proposing to reduce the wages of any employee in these contracts or to take away their benefits."
The latest strike involves allegations that AT&T tried to bargain with employees without first negotiating with the union. The CWA said it has submitted two dozen unfair-labor practice charges to the National Labor Relations Board.
"This is just an ongoing pattern of management violating the basic rules of bargaining," said Libby Sayre, president of the CWA district covering California and Nevada. "Our members are angry and frustrated that AT&T won't get serious about bargaining."
AT&T said it complies with labor laws. The company also said it is prepared to handle a walkout.
"AT&T has been planning for more than two years to handle a work stoppage like this, and has a substantial contingency workforce of well-trained managers and vendors in place," it said in a statement.
Peter Rhamey, a telecom analyst for BMO Capital Markets, said companies often have trained management to do the union jobs in case of a work stoppage.
He said a short-term strike is unlikely to affect operations, but a long-term labor struggle could hurt AT&T's service and lead to a loss of customers.