AT&T recently announced a mandatory return to the office for most of its call center workers, effective September 21st, for the first time since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020. This adds them to the growing chorus of large American corporations ordering an end to fully remote work, from Google to Tesla. Unlike many of these workers, much of AT&T is unionized. The Communication Workers of America (CWA) had just signed a six month extension to a national memorandum of agreement on remote work just two days earlier. However, the agreement had a loophole that let AT&T opt out of certain buildings, and the company ended up opting out everywhere.
Workers are by and large enraged by this move. When Kieran Knutson, an 18-year employee of AT&T in Minneapolis, was elected president of CWA Local 7250 in 2020, he found that remote work was “the most passionate issue [he’s] ever seen in [his] workplace.” AT&T first floated a return to work in the summer of 2021, but quickly backed down when the Delta variant of Covid was surging. Since then, Local 7250 has been fighting for a permanent work from home option, through a Work From Home Committee created within the local. The committee started to meet every week on Zoom, and continues to this day. They created a petition this spring along with Local 7200, also in Minnesota, and began demanding that CWA take up the issue nationally. As the petition gathered signatures, AT&T workers around the country began to take note. Since then, three other locals have joined the petition, and Local 7250 opened up its Work From Home Committee to any union member to join.
Notably, this effort is being driven by the rank and file of the union. AT&T workers are split into many different contracts negotiated on a national level by CWA, and the agreement covering Local 7250 was extended by four years last winter without any effort to get remote work included in the contract. Because of this byzantine set-up, where workers at different call centers – even within the same state – are covered by different contracts, they can feel incredibly disconnected from any other center. The workers outside of Minneapolis that have heard about 7250’s effort say that this campaign is the first time that call center workers are having sustained contact with each other. The connections that have emerged have been due to the efforts of individual workers. For example, Mustafa Hassan, President of CWA Local 3905 in Huntsville, Alabama, met Local 7250 President Kieran Knutson at Labor Notes raising the prospects of communication and coordination across state lines.
In interviews, AT&T workers wanted to stress how valuable working from home was for them. Val Williams, a twenty-two year AT&T employee who works in Houston, called it “a blessing,” as it allowed her to be home with her young child. Especially during remote learning, employees were happy to be able to work at home and keep an eye on their kids. Yolanda Olmo, a fourteen year AT&T employee from Minneapolis, describes the feeling of being home with her kids as “having one of the biggest worries off your plate.”
What’s more, the workers were able to stay safe during the pandemic, something that is a constant on people’s minds. Val works in the one district where the workers have already been ordered back to work. Val says that since then, Covid has run rampant. While the company refuses to release data on who has been infected, she and her co-worker Claude estimate it to be between twenty and twenty-five percent of the workforce. Besides the danger of Covid, Val says that the anxiety of being in such a workplace has caused everyone to be on edge. After walking in the door, “it takes you a minute just to calm down,” but then someone will cough or sneeze and it will come back again. Many workers noted that besides the pandemic, there are plenty of other diseases out there that circulate freely in these workplaces.
Being forced to return to commuting, with the high gas prices and increasingly far-flung suburban housing, amounts to a pay cut. It should be no surprise that cities with the longest commutes have the highest rates of office vacancies as the Wall Street Journal recently reported. Even in smaller cities, AT&T’s history of downsizing and consolidation has led to large commutes for its workers. Mustafa says that around half of the affected workers in his Huntsville local are former employees of a closed call center in Birmingham, and typically commute ninety minutes each way.
AT&T itself also enjoyed savings from remote work. The employees are paying for their own wi-fi now, and use company-provided cell phones instead of the landlines they used at the office. These landlines will be gone permanently, as the company now is asking for the employees to continue to use their mobile phones in the office. For the workers it is clear that their productivity is up, and absenteeism is down. As Yolanda notes, if people are sick at home, they might not drive to work, but they will work their shift from bed. Huntsville is in Tornado Alley and gets semi-frequent ice storms in the winter, which Mustafa cites as potential work stoppages easily avoided through remote work. Most AT&T workers have shares in the company, and thus receive reports regularly on the good financial health of the business.
So why is AT&T making its workers come back to the office? Val’s local manager in Houston told the center that they were returning for face-to-face training, but since then, every training has been conducted virtually. Similarly, Yolanda says her boss is telling her that “collaboration” and “synergy” are the reasons why they need to come back. Every worker I talked to suspected that the real reason is to push older workers out. These call centers are veteran workforces—all the workers have been working there for at least ten years at Yolanda’s workplace in Minneapolis, and for twenty-two at Val and Claude’s in Houston. The current workforce is over the minimum number established in CWA’s contract with the company and workers think that AT&T wants to cut down the numbers. Already, Yolanda says, company cuts have been taking their toll. Inbound calls, which she used to take only over the first quarter of the year, are now assigned to her through September, because the head count is shrinking.
Another possible reason why AT&T is forcing a return to work is the recent slump in commercial real estate. Trade paper, The Real Deal, has been reporting on trouble in the industry, as downtowns have been slow to recover from the pandemic. Real estate, of course, is the main power broker in municipal politics, and many local mayors and chambers of commerce have rung alarm bells about the decline in downtown usage. If a large company like AT&T can bring its employees back, then maybe these areas can start to regain their value. The pressure to shore up real estate can be seen clearest in New York City, where the Times recently covered a massive investment in real estate megaprojects by Governor Kathy Hochul, despite the recent Hudson Yards development failing to fill up. The same story mentioned that most downtown office leases haven’t been up for renewal since the pandemic started. One real estate broker is quoted in the story as saying that if the remote work trend continues, “there will be landlords left with empty office buildings.” This could be cataclysmic for the economic structure of many cities.
Whatever happens with the return to office, it is heartening to see workers fight back. Contrary to what most of the media has been telling us, many workers are clearly not ready to forget the last few years and “return to normal.” As Kieran of Local 7250 told me, since the pandemic began, “there’s been a transformation in what people think they’re owed.” When you give people something they have never had before, like a chance to be with their kids during the day or suddenly not having to spend three hours in a car every day, it turns out they do not give it up so easily. It is also important that this is a fight that the rank and file have spearheaded, making connections with workers across the country that they had never talked to before. As one of the Local 7250 workers joked over a megaphone at a recent picket, the real “collaboration” and “synergy” comes from the union taking action.
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Paul KD is a member of UFCW Local 663, an activist in the labor movement in the Twin Cities, and a member of the Tempest Collective.