Peeved over a memo written by an AT&T manager, thousands of workers in California and Nevada walked off the job Friday in protest in the midst of contract negotiations between the company and the union known as the Communications Workers of America.
The memo was sent to AT&T employees in installation and maintenance in California and Nevada, said Libby Sayre, Area Director of CWA District 9, which covers California, Nevada and Hawaii.
"Recently, Union activity has caused some of you to make a choice not to serve our customers. Given comments I have heard from many of you regarding the importance of providing good customer service, I'm a bit puzzled about why you would leave customers without service we committed we would provide them," wrote Betsy Farrell, Vice President - West Core I&M, AT&T Network Operations. "The company doesn't suffer. In fact, these actions help us financially. It hurts your pocketbook, but mostly hurts our customers."
In the memo, Farrell also warned that dissatisfied customers may defect to another service provider and that "[f]ewer customers means fewer jobs."
AT&T workers viewed the memo as somewhat "insulting" and "threatening," Sayre said.
Of AT&T's 18,000 CWA-represented workers in California and Nevada, thousands on Friday walked off the job, Sayre said, though she said she didn't know the precise number.
"A number of our wireline employees in California and Nevada have walked off the job today over a grievance," AT&T spokesman Marty Richter confirmed, declining to specify the nature of the grievance. "We are currently working with the union to resolve the issue and get the employees back to work as soon as possible."
Richter said in an email AT&T "places a priority on customer service" and is prepared for such an event.
"We have systematically and thoroughly prepared for a potential work stoppage, and we have a substantial contingency workforce of well-trained managers and vendors in place," he said.
In April, contracts covering 40,000 AT&T workers expired.
The union and AT&T continue to negotiate over new contracts, though progress has been slow.
"I would say we've made very limited progress on a very short list of issues and impatience is mounting," Sayre said. "Memos like this memo ... really are completely unhelpful."
The CWA is frustrated over what it perceives as AT&T's unreasonable demands for concessions in the contract terms. AT&T and the workers have been negotiating on such issues as benefits, pensions and work rules.
Richter of AT&T said the company wants to protect middle-class jobs. The average network technician covered under the contracts earns $133,000 in wages and benefits while the average call center rep makes $107,000, he said.
"We're not proposing to reduce anyone's wages," Richter said, "and they'll continue to have great benefits."
The good news for AT&T is that workers should be back on duty Monday.
"Barring anything unforseen, this will be a one-day event," Sayre said.