An estimated 17,000 AT&T technicians in California and Nevada went on strike Wednesday, highlighting workplace tensions within the massive Dallas telecommunications giant.
The strike follows a protracted dispute between AT&T and union members affiliated with the Communications Workers of America, District 9, who have been working without a contract for nearly a year. Workers say they have been increasingly asked to perform the duties of higher-paid employees and that AT&T has cut sick leave and disability benefits and required them to pay more for their healthcare.
Another sticking point is AT&T's closure of U.S. call centers, including a facility near Anaheim. The union contends that AT&T has moved 8,000 call center jobs in recent years to the Philippines, Mexico and other countries.
"We want to keep our call center jobs here in California — they are displacing middle-class families by eliminating jobs," said Armando Zepeda, an AT&T technician and union board member who works in San Diego. "And we are looking for fair California wages because it is astronomical to live in California."
It was unclear whether the strike affected service for AT&T's landline customers — or how long the stoppage might last.
"We are prepared to continue serving customers," AT&T spokesman Marty Richter said. "We are a customer service company, and we plan for all contingencies ... weather, natural disasters, work stoppages or any other factors."
Richter said AT&T has a strong record of reaching fair deals with its employees.
"We're currently negotiating with the union in a good-faith effort to reach a fair labor agreement covering wireline employees" in California and Nevada, he said. "We've reached 28 fair labor agreements since 2015, collectively covering nearly 123,000 employees."
AT&T said it has hired 20,000 people into union-represented jobs in 2016 and has more than 4,200 other union job openings.
"We're a union-friendly company, with more full-time, union-represented employees than any company in America," Richter said. "We're the only major wireless company with a unionized workforce."
Union officials said Wednesday's walkout, which began at 6 a.m., was triggered by AT&T's demand that technicians who typically install and maintain the company's U-Verse TV service also work on the cables and hardware for landline phone service (AT&T's wireless division is not affected by the action).
"We are hoping to reach an agreement settlement with the company," said Shelia Bordeaux, a member of the executive board of the CWA Local 9003 in Los Angeles. "They are unilaterally and continually changing the job duties of our premise technicians to do a higher-wage job at a lower rate of pay."
The two sides have been trying to negotiate a new contract to replace the one that expired in April 2016. Bordeaux said Wednesday's strike was to resolve the issue of job duties for the premise technicians, and only included landline workers who belong to the CWA in California and Nevada.
In addition to Los Angeles, workers were striking in San Diego and San Francisco.
AT&T has been under pressure to control costs as its biggest business — wireless phone service — has matured and faced rising competition from Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile.
An estimated 21,000 wireless phone service workers nationwide at AT&T voted in early February to authorize a strike as their contract expired.
The labor dispute comes as AT&T is seeking government approval for a massive $85-billion takeover of entertainment company
AT&T has been encouraging customers of its U-Verse television system to shift to DirecTV or its streaming service DirecTV Now. AT&T shares closed down 43 cents, or 1%, to $41.65.