LAUREL HILL —Technicians working for AT&T held what they called an “informational picket” on Saturday to get the word out about a contract dispute with the telecommunications giant.
About 30 picketers lined up in front of the AT&T facility on U.S. 74 near Laurel Hill for a protest that lasted about three hours.
The picketers included members of Communication Workers of America Local 3617 from Laurinburg and CWA Local 3609 from Lumberton. The two union chapters are made up of technicians from Scotland, Richmond and Robeson counties.
Workers held up signs stating that they were fighting for the middle class and asking for support for working families. Several drivers sounded their horns in solidarity as they passed the protest.
The picket stems from the failure of CWA and AT&T Southeast to reach a contract agreement by Aug. 8. The two sides had been negotiating for about two months.
Patrick Locklear, president of CWA Local 3617, said the main issue is the rising costs of benefits despite wages not keeping up with the cost of living.
“The company has asked us to give back and we did that in the last two contracts,” Locklear said, “but this time, they are being just a little too aggressive.”
Locklear said that AT&T also wants to reduce worker benefits by raising health care premiums and deductibles, reducing workers’ disability, and renegotiating agreements with retirees who worked for the company for 30 or more years.
“We’re not trying to make a statement about how much we get paid,” Locklear said. “We’re out here because it is about family. We want to be able to go to work and then come home and see our families.”
According to Locklear, workers chose to organize the informational picket to inform the public of the negotiations and show AT&T that they take the contract issues seriously. He said that a strike is still a possibility. Union members are currently working without a contract.
“We’re out here today to let our bargaining team know that we’re ready,” Locklear said. “We’re ready to do whatever is necessary to get a fair contract.”
Similar events were staged across North Carolina and in eight other states.
Marty Richter, a spokesman for AT&T, said that while the company has not reached an agreement with the CWA, the parties have agreed to continue to negotiate.
“It’s not unusual for the two sides to continue to bargain beyond contract expiration, and the ongoing negotiations reflect the cooperative spirit of the longstanding relationship between the company and the union,” Richter said in a statement.
The expired contracts do not include AT&T Mobility/wireless employees.
“Our employees in these contracts are very well compensated, and they will continue to be,” Richter said.
Richter added that AT&T is prepared for the possibility of strike.
“We remain confident that both parties will work conscientiously and in good faith toward a suitable agreement, and we don’t think a strike is in anyone’s best interest,” Richter said. “We have systematically and thoroughly planned for a potential work stoppage and have a substantial contingency workforce of well-trained replacements ready.”
A new contract would cover 26,000 union workers in the southeastern United States.
Reach Scott Witten at 910-506-3023.