AT&T workers took to New Haven’s streets Thursday afternoon chanting slogans, waving signs and holding red balloons to protest a decision by the telecommunications giant to create new Connecticut jobs that offer lower wages than existing positions.
Approximately 100 protestors — though organizers said 260 people attended — marched up and down Church St. dressed in red, eventually stopping at the AT&T office located on the corner of Wall and Orange streets. William Henderson, president of Local 1298, the telecommunications workers’ union that organized the demonstration, said AT&T plans to hire new employees for the release of new services that will allow the company to enter the cable television market. But while current installers are paid $25 per hour, Henderson said the new workers would be paid only slightly more than half that amount.
A spokesman for AT&T confirmed that the new employees, who will work on the company’s new cable services, will not receive the same wages as existing employees in order to remain competitive with cable companies whose employees are not unionized.
Henderson said local employees of AT&T — New Haven’s largest for-profit employer, and fourth largest employer overall — are worried they will be forced to accept a drop in their wages or lose their jobs.
“They are trying to get an installer’s job that pays $25 an hour and move it to $13.50 an hour without a pension and the benefits that goes with it,” Henderson said. “You cannot raise a family with $13.50 an hour. You cannot even afford to buy the services you are creating.”
Henderson said the demonstration was part of a nationwide day of action among AT&T workers in a number of major cities including San Francisco and New York.
AT&T Connecticut spokesman Seth Bloom said the telecommunications company expects a significant growth in business with its soon-to-be-released “U-verse” service, which will offer cable telvision services and high-speed Internet. The service, based on IP technology, will be carried over an upgraded phone network.
Bloom said no jobs will be cut since the new jobs the company will create are different from current positions. He said new workers will be fully unionized long-term workers, but that the company cannot afford to offer them the same wage as current employees if it is to remain competitive with the cable companies.
“We are competing with cable companies that employ un-unionized workers and hire contractors,” Bloom said. “We are going into the market where we are at a disadvantage, as [cable companies] have a significant share of the market.”
Connecticut AT&T workers have been involved in other union protests this year. In May, Local 1298 protested AT&T’s plan to transfer Spanish-speaking customers’ billing inquiries to a call center in Texas if a call to the New Haven call center was on hold for too long. Henderson said workers participated in a march similar to today’s, claiming the company was sacrificing potential new jobs in Connecticut by transferring the calls to Texas.
Henderson said his union has offered proposals to AT&T, which were refused by company officials who walked away from negotiations in August. But Bloom said the company has already reached agreements with unions in other regions of the country over the same issue and is still willing to negotiate with Local 1298.
Historically, the Elm City has been a center for telecommunications in the state, New Haven Deputy Director of Economic Development Tony Bialecki said. Southern New England Telephone built its headquarters in New Haven when the telephone was first invented and the company owned large blocks of land throughout the city, including 300 George St. — an area that now houses biotech companies. SNET became Southwestern Bell Communications and was bought out by AT&T last year.
—Staff Reporter Steven Siegel