Union claims AT&T's web of subcontractors puts public at risk

The Communication Workers of America (CWA) has called out AT&T for its use of subcontractors that the union said pose a safety threat in the communities they work in.

In a report issued earlier this week, CWA said AT&T has used a web of more than 700 discount contractor companies to construct and maintain its network over the past four years. Those contractors, and their subcontractors, have had repeated run-ins with local governments as well as numerous safety violations.

"Generally, these contractors are non-union and are sent around the country, undermining the workplace standards established by AT&T employees through collective bargaining agreements," CWA's report said. "The result is a disturbing record of accidents that cause damage to utilities, public property, and homes while presenting serious risks to worker and public safety."

While AT&T still employs about 90,000 CWA members—who provide the lion's share of the company’s core services—AT&T "has increasingly sought to prevent union members from carrying out many essential functions."

"Outsourcing to contractors allows AT&T to escape responsibility to compensate workers at the same level as union-represented employees and to get away with not addressing harms caused to the public or workers," the report said.

Further, CWA said that those contractors are using subcontractors, which it makes it more difficult to hold AT&T accountable for problems that the subcontractors created.

CWA cited a laundry list of contractor and subcontractor issues such as rupturing gas lines, failing to use safety protocols, damaging customers' property, not adequately burying fiber lines, and causing internet and power outages.

In a survey of 1,500 AT&T technicians conducted by CWA, 96% of the respondents said contractors caused quality problems leading to higher costs, followed by service quality problems for customers (81%), and safety risks for workers or the public (57%).

"These problems directly affect AT&T technicians’ workload and duties," the report said.

The CWA has seen its membership dwindle due AT&T's efforts to trim its workforce as part of an overall plan to reduce operational costs by $6 billion. On AT&T's fourth quarter earnings call, AT&T CEO John Stankey said AT&T was targeting a 4% reduction in labor-related costs including benefits and contract employees in 2020. Last year Elliott Management urged AT&T to cull more jobs as part of the telco's efforts to reduce its debt load.

CWA also provided comments from some of the techs in its survey.

"Contractors rush to get the job done quicker bypassing safety issues and damage the plant trying to get done quicker to make more money," one technician said.

The contractors themselves have issues with how AT&T is handling its contracts with them.

"AT&T is a bully," a contractor said. "They used to be the best company to do work for. Gradually they became the leaders of the ‘I’ll pay you later and if you don’t like it we will get someone else’ bunch.”

AT&T requires its contractors to perform background checks on employees who access its property or networks, and provides them with detailed requirements for the work they do.

"We are one of the nation’s largest employers of union-represented employees – by far the largest in our industry, and the only wireless company with a unionized workforce," AT&T said in a statement to FierceTelecom. "We use a variety of resources to serve our customers and sometimes that includes contractors to work, for example, in areas such as construction and maintenance of cell towers which often serve multiple wireless providers and their customers. We hold our contractors to high standards and our contracts require strict compliance with state and federal laws and regulations, including worker safety."

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The CWA has said the percentage of the company’s union workforce has decreased, with only 40% of its workforce covered by collective bargaining agreements. Since receiving $21 billion from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, AT&T has steadily cut jobs each quarter, despite promises to create 7,000 new jobs, CWA has. Overall, AT&T has eliminated over 40,000 jobs.

RELATED: CWA calls out AT&T's lack of fiber in its DSL footprint

The union has had AT&T in its crosshairs this week after announcing two other reports including one on the lack of fiber in the telco's DSL footprint and its plan to close down 320 company-owned AT&T Mobility retail stores in November and December, which will affect 1,600 workers.