AT&T and CWA: Is no news good news this week?

After a weekend off for Easter, AT&T and CWA representatives went back to the bargaining table to work out a new contract. It's been pretty quiet this week on the rhetoric/PR front. Is no news good news?

Both sides are playing high-stakes poker. AT&T would like to cut its health care costs by getting workers to pick up more of the tab. The union sees the company's more than $12 billion in profits last year -- after executive bonuses -with more talk of higher profits in 2009 and wonders why they should take an effective benefits cut.

Like it or not, there's a "We don't want to be like the auto industry" cloud hanging over both sides. AT&T doesn't want to carry forward higher health care costs and end up like GM, with massive liabilities dragging it down into a government handout. The union says that such a comparison is apples-and-oranges and understandably doesn't want to lose ground for its members - especially during a recession.

How long can both sides go on without a new contract?

I've seen a lot of talk about AT&T locking out workers for up to two weeks if there is no progress, but I just can't see it happening - the disruption to the business and PR fallout would be ugly. Certainly AT&T non-union/management positions are trained to take over union positions, but they are not SKILLED in performing those tasks, so there'd be a steep learning curve involved that would take more than two weeks of on-the-job performance for mastery.  

And the union striking? It's more likely, but with the recession in deep swing, it's a measure of last resort. Would a loss of all short-term wages during a strike be less than longer-term (but on the installment plan) higher payments for health care?  That's a tough call, and if union leadership makes the wrong calculation, a lot of people will get hurt.

If things stay quiet, we can assume some progress is being made. If the union turns up its rhetoric and we see higher-profile picketing and other actions, then it's a whole 'nother ball game.

- Doug