Showdown at SBC Communications

At press time, over 100,000 SBC workers in 13 states, members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), were on the job but poised to strike if SBC management continued to reject the union’s demands for affordable health care and job security. The national union can call a strike on 24 hours notice.

The union says San Antonio, Texas-based SBC, ranking 33 on the Fortune 500 list with profits of $8.5 billion last year, should share the wealth. Ed Whitacre is the SBC chief executive officer and his total 2003 package alone was $24,788,875 – or 426 times the average paycheck earned by SBC workers. The union estimates that each worker produced $42,969 for SBC. That’s pure gravy, after wages, salaries (including Whitacre’s), benefits, taxes, operating expenses, debt service and other bills are paid.

But SBC wanted 150,000 retirees and their dependents to start paying a premium on their health insurance, netting the corporation at least an additional $400 million in yearly profits. Milt Kuhl, who retired in 1984 from SBC predecessor Pacific Bell, told the San Francisco Chronicle: “I don’t have a big pension. I went to work for them at $63 a week with the understanding that I would get a decent pension and they would take care of my health care. It’s an insult. These guys never climbed a pole. They never got up at three in the morning to fix a downed telephone line.”

CWA members at SBC who actually perform the wizardry that makes cell phones work and profits skyrocket are so angry at company stonewalling their current contract negotiations that when their contract expired early last month, they voted by a 90 percent margin to strike.

White and blue collar CWA members are fighting for jobs for their families and their communities. That means halting SBC from shipping their jobs to workers in as many as 26 countries who lack union wages and protections, substituting temporary workers for permanent workers, using non-union subcontractors to do bargaining unit work, and shifting work to management. As new technology creates new jobs, CWA workers, whose brains and hands created the capital investment in the first place, want access to those jobs.

Health care is a budget line item for SBC board members, but for workers, active and retired, increasing union oversight and authority over health care plans is crucial to protecting their families’ health. Controlling co-payments for retirees is key.

Workers read business publications and a wage increase commensurate with SBC profits, productivity and executive salary makes sense to CWA members.

What is probably news in the corporate boardroom are union demands for improved working conditions, including restrictions on mandatory overtime, marketing quotas and harsh discipline policies.

While negotiations are ongoing with a federal mediator in Washington, D.C., CWA members and their families are not waiting for a phone call. Their picket signs have been visible by the thousands at rallies and informational picket lines in Columbus, Ohio; Madison, Wis.; Oakland and Red Bluff, Calif.; and points in between. Local union members are reporting potential scab sightings and trainings, tracking outside contractors and supervisors.

Grassroots pressure has already forced SBC’s $24-million man, Whitacre, to join negotiators at the bargaining table. Whitacre had been flying around the country testifying at various federal and state hearings opposing government regulation of the industry.

There is no doubt shipping jobs overseas is a “good thing” – for a handful of CEOs and multinational corporations. SBC workers and all U.S. workers see their livelihood sailing away or zapped away over the Internet. Communities and cities see their tax base shrink and school systems collapse. Residents struggle to make mortgage payments, often juggling two and three low-wage jobs.

Profit drives SBC, but survival drives CWA members, their families and communities. The customer service professionals, maintenance technicians and electronic wizards are on the line for a good contract not only for their families but for towns and cities in 13 states.

The author can be reached at dwinebr696@aol.com.