Through Action and Collective Bargaining, CWA Activists Right a Wrong at AT&T

In 2011, 13 CWA Ohio members/AT&T technicians were disciplined by AT&T for sustaining and seeking medical treatment for work-related injuries. The company charged that the workers had violated AT&T’s new accident /injury discipline policy, which claimed all work-related accidents and injuries are preventable and, thus, the fault of the workers.

When technicians reported their accidents/injuries to their supervisor and later sought medical treatment (making this an OSHA-recordable injury), the company disciplined the workers for incurring a preventable accident/injury. Employees were placed on suspension from one to five days and they were placed on a five-year probationary period. If another preventable accident/injury occurred within the following five years, the workers were to be terminated.   

Grievances and, lacking their resolution, OSHA complaints were filed by the affected CWA Ohio local unions. While grievances were put on hold, Federal OSHA found the company in violation of the anti-discrimination provisions (Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act) and the U.S. Department of Labor filed suit against AT&T.

As a result of the grievances filed by the Union, Section 11(c) violations identified by Federal OSHA, and law-suits filed by the U.S. Department of Labor against AT&T, the company changed their policy in 2014. The new policy requires an investigation and review of each accident /injury to determine if the employee is at fault. If the investigation determines the worker is not at fault, no disciplinary action is taken.  AT&T also agreed to fully compensate all affected CWA Ohio members/technicians and remove all references to related disciplinary action from their personnel files.

Twenty additional CWA local unions from Michigan to Florida and Connecticut to California took action to protect local members. All members have been made whole by AT&T and all references related to disciplinary action have been removed from their personnel files.

This is the broadest mobilization effort ever to protect workers under the anti-discrimination provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. CWA’s efforts show how Union workers mobilizing to secure safe working conditions can and did change a major policy at the employer. Now, onto extending these rights to all employees in the company.

After several years of attempting to gain justice for technicians/members employed by AT&T who were disciplined by the company for sustaining and seeking medical treatment for work-related injuries, the company was forced to remove all references to certain disciplinary actions and fully compensate many members, to avoid a federal district court trial and a company-wide injunction.  Additionally, the Company made changes to its policies and procedures regarding discipline and workplace injuries.  Because the Company made all the changes that were demanded by the United States Secretary of Labor in its federal law suit against Ohio Bell, the federal district court in a January 23, 2015 memorandum opinion and order dismissed the suit. This decision is particularly important as it positively affects the more than 100 similar contractual grievances and OSHA Section 11(c) cases filed by members and their local union leaders (28 different locals) throughout the country- stretching from California to Connecticut and Michigan to Florida. This successful multi-year effort was produced through the extensive education, mobilization, and representation activities of CWA Local leaders, Staff, as well as the Occupational Safety and Health and Legal Departments.    

In 2011, AT&T initiated/implemented a new accident/injury discipline policy/practice. In summary, the practice stated when an employee was involved in an accident which resulted in a preventable injury (the company defined all accidents/injuries as preventable), the employee was to report the incident to her/his supervisor. If medical treatment beyond first aid was required, the affected employee sought medical treatment from the company medical provider- making this an OSHA recordable case to be listed on the employer-maintained OSHA Logs of Injuries and Illnesses. After the employee received the OSHA-recordable medical treatment, AT&T disciplined the employee for incurring a preventable injury by suspending the employee from one to five 5 days- based on the gravity of the incident/injury. In addition, reference to the disciplinary action was entered in the employee’s personnel files. Going one step further, the company placed the employee on a five-year probationary period. If another preventable injury occurred within this five-year period, the worker was to be terminated.

Given this policy was/is in direct conflict with/in violation of CWA’s collective bargaining agreements with AT&T as well as the anti-discrimination provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, in a coordinated effort involving CWA Local unions, Districts, and CWA’s Occupational Safety and Health and Legal Departments, Local leaders in all CWA districts in which the union represents AT&T technicians began to file grievances. Lacking the company’s agreement to resolve these grievances, local leaders began to file complaints with federal or state occupational safety and health administrations. In many of these cases, OSHA found the company in violation of Section 11(c)- the anti-discrimination provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. For example, in numerous cases, Michigan OSHA found the company in violation of the OSHAct. The company appealed the initial four decisions. In turn, in successive administrative law judge rulings, all four cases were decided in favor of the affected CWA members and Local union. In addition, in thirteen complaint investigations involving multiple Ohio CWA Local unions, Federal OSHA found the company in violation of Section 11(c). Subsequently, during the early part of 2014 the office of the Solicitor of Labor- U.S. Department of Labor in Cleveland, Ohio filed a lawsuit against AT&T in all thirteen OSHA complaint cases. (This filing was followed by similar lawsuits against the company by the Kansas City, Missouri and Chicago, Illinois offices of the Solicitor of Labor).

After the Solicitor’s Cleveland office filed suit, AT&T began to address the issues raised in the lawsuit. For example, the company instituted major changes in its discriminatory work practices. Most important of these was the Company’s policy that all work-related accidents/injuries were preventable and, thus, the fault of the worker. This policy has been amended by AT&T requiring an objective investigation and review of every accident/injury. If the investigation determines the worker was not at fault, i.e., the accident/injury was not preventable, no disciplinary action will be taken; whereas, under the previous policy, the worker was automatically judged to be at fault because the company determined all accidents/injuries were preventable.

In today’s world where the company places productivity, performance, and profits above everything else, this decision will help allow tens of thousands of CWA members to perform their jobs in a more safe, healthful, and less stressful manner.  Going forward, CWA Locals and Districts throughout the U.S. will continue using the collective bargaining process to ensure all affected members are made whole and the new company policy is instituted.

This is the most significant mobilization effort ever targeting use of Section 11(c) of the OSHAct. In that regard, CWA President Larry Cohen would like to extend his sincere thanks to all of the union’s safety and health activists, members, leaders, and District and Headquarters staff for their successful efforts in producing this victory. In addition, CWA thanks Dr. David Michaels and his dedicated staff at Federal OSHA for their work supporting CWA in our mutual efforts to ensure workers are provided safe and healthful working conditions and employers are held responsible for complying with the OSHAct.