Bruce Johnston’s sign worked. It said, “Honk if you’re fed up with AT&T,” and several cars and trucks blared their horns at the group of nine men at the corner of Bluecutt Road and North Fifth Street in Columbus on Tuesday.
But the strike from thousands of AT&T employees in nine southern states seemed to work too, because the company completed negotiations with the Communication Workers of America union and led members to call off the strike early this morning. Those employees returned to work at noon.
“CWA members’ spirit and solidarity over the last four days showed the company that we would not back down until they bargained with us in good faith,” CWA District 3 Vice President Richard Honeycutt said in a press release. “This was a historic strike that showed the power that working people have when they join together.”
The striking workers were digital, electronic, services, facility and other technicians. AT&T retail workers are under a different contract. The technician contract is renegotiated every three to five years, and the last time workers struck was 1983.
CWA filed charges of unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that AT&T was not sending negotiators with decision-making authority to contract negotiations.
“So far it’s apparent that they’ve only sent mouthpieces,” said Robert Johnston, Bruce’s brother and the president of CWA Local 3504 in five counties including Lowndes and Oktibbeha. He held a sign on Tuesday that said “AT&T Unfair.”
About 20 AT&T employees in Columbus and 17 in Starkville took shifts standing on the sides of busy streets from Saturday to Tuesday. The strike covered AT&T’s entire southeast region: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.
The strike ended after an AT&T representative from company headquarters in Dallas completed negotiations with the union’s bargaining team. Johnston said he got a text around 2 a.m. that the strike was over but does not know if the union has withdrawn its ULP charges against the company.
Mike McCuiston, an AT&T digital technician in Starkville, said the strikers had been hoping to get back to work as soon as possible because it was in the best interest of the company, workers and customers.
“A strike is never in the best interest of anybody, but there are just some things you’ve got to do sometimes and that was one of them,” McCuiston said. “I think it’s done a world of good. That’s my opinion and I’m sure it’s the opinion of a lot of other people.”
Robert Johnston, also a digital technician, agreed with McCuiston that no one truly wanted to go on strike.
“We’re all glad to go back to work,” he said. “(The strike was) not something anybody was jumping up and down to do.”
When 700,000 CWA members went on strike in 1983 — demanding job security, higher wages and changes to their pension plans — McCuiston was involved then, too. This week, he held up signs on Industrial Park Road in Starkville. He has worked for AT&T since 1979, the Johnston brothers have since the 2000s, and Columbus strikers Chris Paine and Dillon Beard since earlier this decade.
But all of them were AT&T employees during the last contract negotiation in 2015, and the company sent qualified negotiators to the table at the time, they said.
“We don’t know (what changed),” Johnston said. “That’s the basis of our charges.”
AT&T spokesman Jim Kimberly said in a Tuesday afternoon email the company’s bargaining team was ready to negotiate “a new, improved contract” through “substantive discussions,” but workers said the strike was about the company’s lack of bargaining in good faith, not about the contract.
Fewer than 8 percent of AT&T employees work under the company’s contract with CWA in the southeast region, Kimberly said.
Kimberly said AT&T is prepared for obstacles to customer service such as strikes and natural disasters but did not provide specific details of how the company plans for such situations and deploys backup technicians.
“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.
The workers did not take lightly their decision to delay customer service, Robert Johnston said this morning.
“I fielded tons of calls from customers that know me and know I live around here and asked what’s going on,” he said. “We’ll be at it hard starting today, trying to get everything back up and going.”
You can help your community
Quality, in-depth journalism is essential to a healthy community. The Dispatch brings you the most complete reporting and insightful commentary in the Golden Triangle, but we need your help to continue our efforts. Please consider subscribing to our website for only $2.30 per week to help support local journalism and our community.