AT&T Workers Fight For Their Lives As Company Faces Investor Revolt

Union workers say an investor plan to save the company will only make the problem worse.
An AT&T bill with a monthly statement
Tim Boyle / Staff

AT&T union employees say a new investor proposal to fix AT&T would only result in significantly more layoffs for the company’s already embattled employees. In a pair of letters to the Business Roundtable and to AT&T, exclusively obtained by Motherboard, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) warns the company that recent investor proposals will be catastrophic for employees working there. AT&T has been facing an investor revolt in recent weeks courtesy of Elliott Management Corp., an activist investment group that currently holds around $3.2 billion in AT&T stock. Elliott recently wrote a public letter to AT&T management saying the company’s recent obsession with merger mania is having a negative impact on the company’s health. They’re not wrong; AT&T’s 2015 purchase of DirecTV ($67.1 billion) and 2018 purchase of Time Warner ($85 billion) has left AT&T one of the most heavily indebted companies on the planet. To recoup this debt, AT&T has been hiking prices on its streaming and traditional TV services, resulting in record subscriber losses. This is not exactly what AT&T executives envisioned when they announced their ambition to try and dominate the streaming video space.


Among the proposals put forth by Elliott is the sale of DirecTV, a renewed focus on wireless broadband, the closure of numerous retail wireless outlets, as well as additional “operational efficiency and organizational streamlining”—otherwise known as layoffs and offshoring. “Elliott’s proposal represents the archetype ploy of vulture capitalists: boost earnings through headcount reductions, outsourcing, and reduced investment to benefit Elliott Management,” one letter warns. “The cost-cutting measures that Elliott recommends, such as closing wireless retail stores and increasing outsourcing, would accelerate the loss of family-supporting jobs and the shift to using low-wage and potentially overseas contractors.”

Analysts from Morgan Stanley also questioned Elliot’s move, however, wondering whether the sale of “non-core businesses” would help or hurt AT&T’s future cash flow. There is also the question of whether Elliot is making these suggestions because it owns AT&T debt and would stand to profit from its own suggestions—Elliot Management, after all, had an Argentine training vessel seized to force the government to clear a debt with the firm.

Earlier this year Motherboard exclusively reported on a wave of layoffs already hitting the telecom giant as it attempts to pivot from curmudgeonly old telco to sexy new media advertising giant. But the union worries that life under Elliott’s proposal would be worse.

"We are not always on the same side as AT&T. We just had a 20,000 person strike in the Southeast," CWA President Chris Shelton told Motherboard. "We don't take their side, we take the side of the workers. But when you attack a company as profitable as AT&T … they just want to make sure the profits go to no one but shareholders. They don't care about the company." “The strategies the hedge fund is recommending serve its goal of inflating AT&T’s stock price over the course of two years,” one letter warns. “We believe that this proposal would only make the situation worse,” the union said.

This sort of strategy has been widely rolled out by private equity over the past few years across multiple industries. “We have seen the role these hedge funds have played [in media] in terms of hollowing out newspapers and other media outlets and leaving almost nothing behind,” CWA Communications Director Beth Allen told Motherboard. Whether it’s local journalism, digital media, or retail grocery chains, investment firms have been able to make a killing by essentially looting profitable firms or pumping up the value of distressed ones before dumping the soon-to-be bankrupt target back in the public market.

Last Tuesday the Wall Street Journal reported that AT&T was unlikely to sell DirecTV, with CEO John Stankey telling the outlet that DirecTV remained an “important” of the company’s long term strategy. The company also recently announced it was bringing longtime AT&T lobbyist Jim Cicconi out of retirement to possibly help navigate the company’s existential crisis. Things aren’t likely to get any easier for AT&T. The company tells investors it expects to lose another 1.1 million subscribers next quarter, and its AT&T TV Now streaming service faces heated competition from Apple and Disney, both of which are expected to launch new streaming services in November at a lower price point than AT&T’s offerings. As AT&T tries to right the ship, union employees find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place—a company already engaged in widespread layoffs, or a new investor vision they feel would only make those job losses even worse.

“Corporations in the United States have been focused on helping shareholders, not stakeholders.” “We got the company to where it is today—Elliot’s suggestions will destroy,” Shelton said. “We’ll stay in this until Elliot cries ‘Uncle!’ or sees the light.”