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This Is Why 675,000 AT&T Employees Went On Strike In 1983

1980s | August 7, 2020

(Kenneth Han/Wikimedia Commons)

On August 7, 1983, phone service across the country was interrupted when 675,000 workers at AT&T went on strike following a breakdown in communication with their employer. The strike came at a crucial moment for the phone company: They were in the middle of being split up into 22 local operating companies, a task that had to be finished by January 1. The 21-day walkout of hundreds of thousands of employees—encompassing repair techs, switchboard operators, secretaries, file clerks, data processors, and more—could have been the straw that ended the monolithic corporation. The employees returned after their unions settled with AT&T, but it wouldn't be the last strike for this phone company.

A Bad Time To Be AT&T

At the beginning of 1982, an antitrust case threatened to bring down AT&T. Not only were they the sole provider of telephone service throughout most of the United States, they also owned most of its telephone equipment through their subsidiary, Western Electric. AT&T knew they couldn't win the suit, so they suggested breaking up the Bell System into 22 different companies. They were given until January 1, 1984 to take care of the dissolution of the company.

As if that wasn't stressful enough, AT&T had also run headfirst into problems with three unions that represented 675,000 workers—the Communications Workers of America, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and the Telecommunications International Union—who weren't happy that the company planned to shift 25% of the cost of health insurance to workers while increasing their hours and not increasing their wages. Bargaining between the unions and AT&T began on August 6, 1983 at Washington's Mayflower Hotel and went straight on until 11:00 P.M. With an hour left to go and no sign of settlement in sight, the unions declared a strike.

(U.S. National Archives)

Catastrophe For AT&T

With more than half a million employees either at home or on the picket line, AT&T had a PR nightmare on their hands. Spokesman Charles Dynes presented an optimistic front to the media, confident that they could eventually reach an agreement with workers and insisting that America's telephones wouldn't be unduly affected, as most of them were manually dialed and didn't require an operator. Even so, much of the internal workload that had been carried by data processors, typists, and the like were going undone, and every day that the unions remained on strike was another day the company was bleeding until their January 1 deadline.

(Magicpiano/Wikimedia Commons)

Violence On The Picket Lines

Most of the damage done to the company was by office workers who stayed home during the 21-day strike, leaving much of the billing and basic processing untouched, slowing down the company's finances, and keeping them from staying on track for divestment. In Providence, Rhode Island, however, striking union workers fought with mounted police on the picket line. In Dorchester, Massachusetts, picketers surrounded three phone trucks operated by "scab" workers, trapping them where they sat. The police had to be called to break up the skirmish.

(Neal Boenzi/The New York Times)

Returning To Work

On August 29, phone workers began returning to work following a national agreement between AT&T and the three unions. While some local disputes still required negotiation, the unions were satisfied that they would get their way. It was a mixed result, as the nature of negotiation often requires forfeiting at least some of your demands, but if it accomplished anything, the strike of 1983 showed union workers within AT&T that their voices mattered. In 1986, the contract signed by the national unions and the phone company expired, and 155,000 long-distance operators, installation techs, and repair personnel went on strike again after AT&T offered what they felt were negligible cost of living increases. With the strike of 1983, workers showed that they could and would do whatever was necessary to improve their lives and the lives of everyone working nine to five.

Tags: 1980s | labor movement | telephone

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.