AT&T workers in Alaska authorize strike over high health care costs

(Image: AT&T/Graphic: The Desk)

Outraged by high health care costs, AT&T’s union-backed workers in Alaska have authorized a strike as the company continues to negotiate with labor leaders over a new contract.

The strike was authorized after both sides failed to reach an agreement concerning cost-of-living increases and certain expenses like health care benefits, with some employees complaining that their insurance policies cost around $1,000 a month.

One long-time union worker who spoke with public radio station KTOO-FM (104.3 FM) said this recent round of labor negotiations was among the most-strenuous he had ever experienced.

“I’m coming up on just shy of 30 years as a 959 member here in Alaska, and we’ve never had to push this hard, never had to go this far,” Tim Kavanaugh, who works as an AT&T technician, told the radio station.

Union officials also accuse AT&T of violating federal labor laws and for failing to maintain critical infrastructure needed to provide telecom services to residents and businesses there. It cited a recent consumer surveys that purported to show the majority of AT&T’s customers ranking their service as substandard, though it was not clear which survey the union was referring to.

The union, Teamsters Local 959, represents over 170 technicians and other AT&T employees in Alaska. Those workers climb towers and engage in hardware management associated with AT&T’s wireless and land-based services, including its cell phone network and fiber services, including its Alaskan-based subsidiary Alascom. It also owns prepaid wireless provider Cricket, which has several stores in Alaska.

Union employees have been working without a contract for three months, KTOO reported. Some have criticized AT&T CEO John Stankey for accepting a $3 million salary bump last year. (Stankey’s salary is now almost $25 million a year.)

Employees in Alaska have also seen their wages go up, but those increases have been offset by higher health care premiums and other costs associated with their earned benefits. In a letter dated May 3, a spokesperson for union members said he personally paid a family health insurance premium of $1,086 each month — which he is forced to pay with his credit card.

“Our raises over the past few years have been unnoticeable due to our health insurance premiums increasing along with the cost of living,” Aaron Natwick, the union spokesperson, wrote in the letter.

An AT&T spokesperson told KTOO they were disappointed, but not surprised, to hear the union had authorized a strike. The labor negotiations have caught the attention of state and federal lawmakers, who wrote letters of their own to AT&T urging the telecom to engage in fair negotiations.

“Your employees work in the most-remote, extreme weather conditions to ensure the name of AT&T is associated with excellent service, and this work can continuously take them away from their families,” Congresswoman Ivy Spohnholz wrote in a letter date May 6 and reviewed by The Desk. “Operating without a contract should not distract them from finishing their duty and keeping Alaska connected.”

Now, AT&T’s union workers are likely to picket, which could cause customer disruptions throughout the state if network conditions deteriorate during the strike.