Missoula workers boycott cable giant 

Union employees of Montana’s largest cable television provider have accused the company of engaging in anti-union activity, a charge that has prompted a nationwide boycott of all AT&T’s cable television services until the matter is resolved.

Members of the Butte-based International Brotherhood of Electrical Worker (IBEW) Local 44 and Montana AFL-CIO are accusing AT&T Cable Services of Montana with adopting “discriminatory corporate policies” by not allowing its union members in Missoula and Butte to participate in the company’s employee stock option and retirement plans, a tactic that they say is part of an ongoing effort to eliminate all union shops in Montana’s cable industry. Missoula and Butte are the last two markets where cable workers are still represented by unions. Their contract expired Feb. 7.

“Basically we’re not asking for anything more than anyone else has. We don’t want a penny more,” says one Missoula-area AT&T Cable Services union employee, who asked not to be identified. “All we want is the exact same thing as the rest of the cable people have. … The same guy doing my job up in Kalispell is making a buck and a half more than I do.”

AT&T Cable serves the vast majority of cable TV customers in Missoula and serve more than 90 percent of the cable market throughout Montana, according to one company spokesman. AT&T Cable Services, which merged last years with longtime Missoula cable provider Tele-Communication Inc. (TCI), is in the process of merging yet again with telecommunications giant Media One, which will create the largest cable provider in the nation.

Although the current labor dispute only affects a small number of employees—23 union workers in Butte and Missoula—the dispute has sparked a nationwide boycott via the AFL-CIO, with some union-friendly satellite dish retailers providing free satellite dishes and reduced rates on program packages for anyone who joins in the boycott.

Representatives from the Missoula office of AT&T Cable Services refused to comment on the boycott or their labor negotiations, deferring all questions to their corporate offices in Denver.

“We are continuing to negotiate in good faith. We’ve got ongoing bargaining sessions scheduled, and hopefully all these issues will be resolved to the benefit of our customers and employees,” says Scott Sobel, a spokesman with AT&T Broadband, the parent company of AT&T Cable Services. “To protect privacy issues of our employees, we really can’t say anything further about it.”

Neither would Sobel comment on what economic impact, if any, the week-old boycott has had thus far on their business except to say, “We do not want to negotiate in the media.”

Ironically, although TCI was long accused by those in the labor community of being anti-union, AT&T operates a heavily unionized workforce.

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