On Monday, Memphis AT&T workers and members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) held protests in solidarity with the national Strike for Black Lives. Workers at the company's Memphis call center, warehouse, and retail stores hoped to call attention to the contradiction between AT&T's recent statements supporting Black Lives Matter and what they say is a failure to protect its predominantly non-white Memphis workforce from Covid-19.
Randall La Plante, CWA Local 3806 Executive Board Member, told Motherboard of a recent incident at the Memphis call center, staffed "overwhelmingly" by women of color, where a class of new hires were exposed to coronavirus during an in-person training. "We had asked, when they had the first two in the class test positive, for them to move to online learning for their training. The company refused to do it. When 10—half the class—eventually tested positive, the company finally decided to move into virtual training. But that was only after they had a week to expose 200 to 300 people."
In a statement to Motherboard, AT&T said: "Everything we do meets or exceeds the local guidelines and has been a result of lots of consultation with the medical community to minimize risk at our locations. Any suggestion otherwise is wrong."
AT&T CEO has called the pandemic a “time of war” where everyone needs to “step up,” but La Plante says the largely Black warehouse workforce has been told it’s not the company's responsibility to sanitize common-use surfaces—workers should do it themselves. Workers have also "begged and begged" for call centers to be cleaned, with pleas either going unanswered or only being addressed after well over a dozen new cases were reported in one week.
"Talk is cheap,” La Plante said. “When they got a massive tax break, AT&T said they were going to create 7,000 middle-class jobs—they've laid off 30,000 people since then. So it's not what they're saying, it's what they're doing that really shows their real stance. If the company really believes that Black Lives Matter, let's clean those call centers, let's try to keep employees safe from [coronavirus].”
AT&T workers are also still protesting a 2017 incident and investigation that cleared Memphis warehouse supervisor Bruce Allman of wrongdoing after workers claimed he "made a noose and tossed it" at a black manager. Nine workers claimed they were fired for making complaints and filed a lawsuit shortly after. Allman still works for AT&T.
"We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind,” AT&T said. “This occured nearly three years ago, we thoroughly investigated it, and absolutely no evidence of any discrimination or threat was found. The facts don't support these allegations."
Wayde Boswell, CWA Local 3806 President, hopes that AT&T will be pressured by protesting workers to improve safety conditions during the pandemic. "We just want to keep our folks safe. We can work in conjunction instead of having to do this. Let's work together, get things done, and keep our folks safe," he said.