100,000 strikers force SBC to pick up phone

CHICAGO – Phone giant SBC Communications got the message when 100,000 workers in 13 states put down their headsets and tool belts to hit the streets, transmitting their own powerful message. After a four-day strike, May 21-24, the multi-billion-dollar company took the call. They came back to the bargaining table with the Communication Workers of America and signed a tentative agreement, addressing the union’s job loss issues and setting aside some of the company’s demands for health care takeaways.

Steve Tescza, president of CWA Local 4250 here, explained his contract priorities. “In-sourcing, out-sourcing, off-shoring, management doing our work: The bottom line is jobs,” he told the World. In addition, he said, the union status of what are called “jobs of the future” is in contention, as the wireless and Internet transmission of both voice and data overtake landline transmission.

The proposed new agreement bars layoffs of current workers for the duration of the five-year contract and rehires 600 workers who had been laid off. New hires, however, will not be covered by the job protection. The company agreed to move technical support jobs to the U.S. when its current overseas outsourcing contract expires in the year 2007.

“Jobs I could have moved into have been outsourced,” Bernadette Lincoln, a residential service representative who is a 26-year employee, told the World from an Oakland, Calif., picket line. “If these positions had been kept, workers in my type of job could advance into them,” she added.

Telecommunications workers across the nation are also alarmed by the eagerness of greedy corporations to outsource jobs overseas. New telecommunications technology has boosted profits but eliminated tens of thousands of jobs.

The health care takeaways in SBC’s original contract proposal played a major role in precipitating the strike. Every SBC worker generated an average of $50,000 in revenue for the company in 2003, according to the CWA, but the company was insisting on imposing health care premiums for both active workers and retirees.

“The company is just being greedy,” said service representative Paula Barnes while on the picket line outside SBC’s main Oakland, Calif., office. A lively group of pickets gathered there at 7 a.m. the first day of the strike. The workers, mostly young, mostly people of color, responded enthusiastically to the many honks of support from passing cars and gave a jeering welcome to management personnel entering the building.

In a remarkable display of union solidarity, hundreds of members of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 21 in Illinois honored the CWA’s picket lines, according to the local’s communications director, Tom Hopper. In the Chicago suburb of Lake Villa, all it took was one CWA member and her son to show up with a picket sign at 8 a.m. to send the entire 100-member crew out to breakfast. Eleven thousand Local 21 members face their own contract struggle with SBC when their contract expires in June.

Some observers pointed to the extensive strike preparations as a model. For example, members of CWA in North Texas did not have to train for rallies, pickets, marches, and other solidarity activities – they had already been doing them for weeks. Workers knew the issues because the union had telephone hot lines, e-mail messaging services, and web page communications.

The tentative contract gains include a 2.3 percent average pay raise per year. For the first time, the SBC contract will include cost-of-living increases and a successor clause insuring that if any phone lines are sold, the buyer must honor the union contract.

In the draft agreement, there will be no health care premiums, but in a compromise with the union, co-pays will increase. SBC projects a $2 billion savings on health care over the course of the agreement as a result of cost-shifting to workers. The cost-shift will be partially offset by $1,000 bonuses for active employees and $2,500 for retirees.

Many of the contract’s details were still being worked out, a union spokesman told the World. While the company conceded that jobs considered extensions of traditional phone work would be union, those in other “high growth” categories would be offered to union workers at “competitive” wages. Nonunion cable technicians’ wages are 50 percent of those of union workers, or less, and “competitive” wages paid to support workers in India are even lower.

The ratification process will end in mid-June after workers vote on the contract in union meetings and by mail.

Jim Lane and Marilyn Bechtel contributed to this story. The author can be reached at rwood@pww.org.