By Stan Santos
Communications Workers of America District 9 is in a struggle with AT&T for the jobs and livelihoods of almost 16,000 members in California and Nevada. Over a dozen members from Districts 9 and 7 traveled to Billings, Montana on April 28-29 for the 2016 AT&T Shareholders Meeting at the Northern Hotel. They met at 7 a.m. in the chilly morning air with signs, leaflets, and a banner which declared, “SHAME ON AT&T!” Gathered around the banner were Stan Santos of CWA 9408, John Adams of 9421, 9400 President Bill Demers, Monica Alvarado of 9423 and Jason Justice of 9510.
Security was tight around the Northern Hotel and included at least a dozen uniformed guards along with several non-uniformed AT&T security personnel. Billings Police Department patrolled the street in front of the entrance, challenging a few pedestrians who attempted to jaywalk. Inside the building, there were several armed officers complete with black paramilitary garb.
Around 8:30 a.m. the CWA activists entered the reception area of the hotel where they were greeted by AT&T employees and vendors demonstrating an assortment of products including cell phones, smart watches, and drones with surveillance camera capabilities. A curtained breezeway separated the reception area from the room where the shareholders meeting would take place.
Behind the curtains, some of the most powerful men (and a few women) of corporate America would make decisions affecting the lives of thousands of workers and millions of people throughout the United States. The individuals who comprise the AT&T Board of Directors include a former Ambassador to the European Union and Chair of the Federal Communications Commission. There are also former and current CEO’s of institutions such as the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, the PricewaterhouseCoopers investment firm, the NASDAQ Stock Market and health insurance giant Humana. They control the largest telecommunications, data and information network in the world.
Voices of labor and shareholders silenced
The CWA activists were disappointed though not entirely surprised when they learned that AT&T recently changed the format for the meetings, silencing the voices of labor and the public who are also shareholders. The meeting followed a very tightly scripted agenda, with opening remarks by Chairman Randall Stephenson and a brief introduction of the Board members followed by votes on key strategic matters in rapid succession.
In a matter of minutes and with calculated efficiency, Stephenson conducted an election for the new Board and ratified the continued contractual oversight of Ernst & Young LLP as the independent auditors. Although his recommendations for the Directors were immediately approved, there was an attempt from the audience to address the issue of the continued reliance on the same accounting firm since 1982. CWA District 9 leader Louie Rocha rose to speak against the motion, asking, “Is it standard practice to have the same auditors for so many years?”
Ernst & Young LLP provides accounting services and representation to 30% of the Fortune 1000 Oil and Gas companies. Their client list boasts such firms as BP of the Deep Water Horizon Gulf Coast disaster, ConocoPhillips, and Koch Industries. Ernst & Young LLP services include fraud investigations, business integrity, and insurance claims. In 2013, Ernst & Young agreed to pay $123 million to settle a criminal case in the US. They admitted that some of its most senior tax partners had been involved in developing, marketing and defending tax avoidance schemes totaling $2 billion on behalf of about 200 wealthy individuals. In 2014, they were implicated in a similar scheme with the Disney Corporation and Koch Industries.
The objections to the motion were intended to preserve the integrity of the accounting process. Representatives of Ernst & Young responded that it was not unusual to have the same firm; the auditors assigned to the AT&T account rotated every five years. The motion to approve their continued services was quickly passed, along with approval of compensation for AT&T executives and the 2016 incentive plan.
Call for transparency
Another set of resolutions was proffered by representatives of investment firms that control several hundred thousand shares of AT&T. The resolutions sought transparency in political spending through full disclosure of direct donations to candidates for office. According to publicly available data, AT&T has spent over $28 million in corporate funds on political activities since 2004. During that same period, there have been ten similar shareholder resolutions asking for disclosure and oversight of its corporate-funded political spending.
The statement cited lobbying in various states for deregulation and the abandonment of landline customers, including collaborative efforts with the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC created model legislative pieces attacking regulatory agencies in a state-by-state process which has spread throughout the United States. California was partially deregulated in 2012 by one such bill, SB 1161, and is now the target of Assembly Bill 2395, which would complete the withdrawal of AT&T from providing landline service by the year 2020.
With 3.3 billion total votes cast, the resolution regarding transparency in political contributions was defeated with 71% of votes cast against; transparency in lobbying was defeated with 66% of votes cast against. An additional resolution which sought to separate the roles of Chairman and CEO into two positions also was defeated by 76% of votes cast against.
CWA emerges more determined
Throughout the day, leading up to and following the Shareholders Meeting, CWA activists engaged with the leadership of AT&T with discipline and professional courtesy. We debated the issues with Mark Royse and Melba Muscarolas, EVP and VP respectively of Labor Relations who are driving the 2016 bargaining for AT&T. We put a human face on our bargaining concerns, including job security, healthcare, and a retirement with dignity for our members.
One moment was revealing when Royse declared that they “gave CWA 6000 new DIRECTV members…” He had to be reminded that it was contractual and that we worked for them. At another point Louie Rocha in his typically direct style asked him politely to not “blow smoke…” and that we would not be misled.
A Local 9408 representative took the opportunity to press ATT Chair and CEO Randall Stephenson regarding the widespread dissatisfaction of DIRECTV techs since the AT&T acquisition. He cited the severe pay cuts and the fact that AT&T is adding insult to injury by continuing to hire new techs and maintain a force of over 34 sub-contractors in the Fresno area. Meanwhile, over 140 DIRECTV techs see overtime capped and in some cases hours cut to below full time.
To his credit Stephenson said, “We need our people doing that work…” and promised to look into this matter. The 9408 representative was surprised when contacted at his office by Labor Relations at the request of “the Chairman”.
CWA activists who attended the 2016 Shareholders Meeting came away with a clear understanding that we face the most powerful forces in the political and economic structures of the United States and beyond. We emerged determined to continue the fight for a collective bargaining agreement that is equal to the needs and dignity of our members and their families. Despite the efforts to stifle a true debate in the shareholders meeting, CWA will continue reaching out to the public and members from coast to coast. We are taking the fight for the 2016 Contract to the workplace and the streets.
Stan Santos is an activist in the labor and immigrant community. Contact him at ssantos@cwa9408. org.