Unions have long been a factor in the telecommunications industry, as workers look to gain leverage in negotiations over salary, conditions and benefits. But in recent months the topic has taken on a heightened weight amid a rise in inflation coupled with a fresh interest in unions, particularly among employees at big technology companies.
Further, President Biden is helping to shine a light on the topic with pro-union messaging and meetings with employees attempting to form unions.
AT&T's John Stankey addressed the topic directly during his company's recent quarterly earnings call.
"We're in the middle of some [labor] negotiations right now," Stankey said, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript, adding that "we'd like to pay less in wages."
Roughly 37% of AT&T's employees are unionized.
Added Stankey: "The good news is we're doing a lot of investment in other forms of mechanization and automation in our business. And some of that investment is helping us keep a lid on some of the wage-related inflation costs."
Stankey's compensation at AT&T totals almost $25 million, around 230 times that of the median AT&T employee.
Meanwhile, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and other unions continue to work to get additional telecom employees to sign up for membership. For example, the CWA announced in recent weeks that AT&T In Home Expert (IHX) workers based in Southfield, Michigan, won an election to join the CWA.
Separately, workers at Verizon Wireless stores in Everett and Lynnwood, Washington, won similar elections.
"The workers, who have been organizing for months, remained united in their efforts to form a union even in the face of aggressive anti-union tactics from the company," according to the CWA.
Officials from Verizon and other companies have generally declined to discuss such topics.
The CWA is also working to expand unions into the cell tower industry.
"We're trying to beat employers who really care nothing about you. And that might even be the company you work for, you know, the big guys, Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile," CWA President Chris Shelton said during a recent town hall on the topic, according to Wireless Estimator, which closely tracks the cell tower industry.
More broadly though, unions are also now moving into big technology companies like Amazon and Apple, where unionization is rare. And this new development is sparking plenty of controversy.
For example, Apple has been coaching its retail store managers on how to try and talk employees out of unionizing, according to Vice.
Separately, Amazon said it would fire a handful of managers involved with a union effort, according to the New York Times.
Interestingly, the interim CEO for coffee giant Starbucks, Howard Schultz, announced benefits including improved sick leave and credit card tipping for around 240,000 Starbucks employees across the country – but not in locations with unions.
"We do not have the same freedom to make these improvements at locations that have a union or where union organizing is underway," Schultz said, according to NPR.
Whether such issues spur additional employees in the telecommunications industry – or the broader technology industry – to seek union representation remains to be seen. It's also unclear whether telecom executives and other top managers will take a page from the Starbucks playbook in order to tamp down union interest.
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