AT&T strike contingency procedure involved training workers from India

By DON McINTOSH, Staff Reporter

Workers reached tentative agreement April 13 on an 18-month contract with AT&T. The two unions - Communications workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) - beat back retrogressive proposals the company initially had proposed, such as cost-shifting for medical benefits and changes in termination pay and working conditions.

Under the agreement, the 28,000 workers will receive a 6 percent wage increase over the 18 months, an 8 percent pension increase and 5.5 percent interest payments on cash balance retirement accounts.

Union members will receive a one-time cash bonus of $250 if the agreement is ratified. On job security, the company and the union agreed to set up committees that will address all contracting initiatives.

Contract talks opened March 11 in Washington, D.C., after the two unions declined AT&T's initial offer to extend the current contracts for up to 18 months because the company would not agree to a no-layoff pledge.

Job security and outsourcing were key issues in the negotiations.

In White Plains, N.Y., Oakbrook, Ill., and Pleasanton, Calif., CWA members were shocked to discover hundreds of workers from India being brought in for training as network technicians.

AT&T spokesperson Claudia Jones said the foreign trainees work for one of three companies hired as part of a strike "contingency plan," in the event a settlement wasn't reached by the May 11 deadline.

"This work can be done remotely anywhere in the world," said CWA spokesperson Jeff Miller.

AT&T is the only major U.S. long distance company that is unionized, but it has been cutting jobs for decades, many of them through contracting out or reclassifying workers as managers. After the Bell system was split up in 1984, AT&T had 200,000 union employees. Today it has 28,000. Some 20,000 jobs have been lost in the last four years alone, including 120 laid off in Portland in January 2000.

Kathleen Kinchius is president of Oakland-based CWA Local 9415, which represents AT&T workers at the Pleasanton site. She worries that this strike contingency plan may turn into a wholesale contracting out of work to India.

Because of advances in computers and in telecommunications, U.S. companies are increasingly able to shift some operations to India, which has a large, well-educated, English-speaking workforce that is willing to work for much less than American workers. Certain kinds of work at AT&T would be vulnerable to such contracting out, including network maintenance and "order provisioning," which are now done by computer.

Kinchius said several hundred Indians are being trained in Pleasanton. "They're being very high-security about this," Kinchius said. "The company set up work stations in vacated pieces of the building. The training is taking place behind locked doors, and they won't let us anywhere near them."

Kinchius said AT&T could probably replace thousands of U.S. workers in a matter of months.

In Oakbrook, Ill., AT&T laid off 165 members of CWA Local 4998 just before Christmas 2001. Two weeks after those layoffs, union leaders discovered that a dozen Indian workers were being trained in the closed facility. "They were brought in for a six- to eight-week training on live equipment to learn how to perform the work of our technicians and circuit assembly workers," said Steve Tisza, president of CWA Local 4250.

Tisza thinks the workers are employees of Tata Consultancy Services, a multinational corporation based in Mumbai, India, and that the plan is for these workers to then train other workers in India.

CWA has contacted all members of Congress, both to complain that AT&T may be abusing the H-1B visa program, and to warn of potential harm to national security if long distance switching is handled by workers in a foreign country such as India.

"Theoretically, a trained technician can monitor phone lines, including those at the Pentagon," said Miller, the CWA spokesperson.

CWA leaders think the workers are in the country under the H-1B visa program, which was set up to import foreign workers when there are labor force needs that can't be met by workers in this country.

The economic slowdown hitting the tech labor market has not stopped employer demand for H-1B visa workers. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service released figures indicating that a record number 195,000 H-1B visa applications had been approved last year.

"We would not be in this situation, training these workers in a rather costly contingency plan, if the unions hadn't rejected our proposal to extend the current contract 18 months," said AT&T spokesperson Jones prior to the tentative agreement.

AT&T is doing poorly financially, in part because of the downturn affecting the entire telecommunications industry, and in part because of recent acquisitions. Miller said the company paid too much to acquire its wireless and broadband divisions and now is saddled by debt from the acquisitions.

In July 2001 the company reorganized its wireless division as a separate company. Now it's proposing to sell its broadband operations to Comcast Communications by the end of the year. This would leave the core AT&T company with $20 billion in debt from its purchase of Tele-Communications Inc. and Media One.

AT&T employs no network technicians in Portland, but Madelyn Elder, president of Portland CWA Local 7901, said plenty of other workers are at risk if the trend to move work to India continues.

April 19, 2002 issue

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