OAKLAND, Calif. – Once again, health care is the burning issue as bargaining continues between SBC, the telecommunications giant, and the Communications Workers of America. Contracts affecting over 100,000 workers in 13 states expired between April 1 and April 3.

SBC workers from CWA Local 9415 and several sister locals staged a spirited rally April 1 in front of SBC’s Oakland office. Many wore colorful T-shirts depicting a cobra with the legend, “Will strike if provoked,” and carried signs proclaiming, “Cutting health care is a sick idea!”

SBC “made $8.5 billion in profits last year and they want us to pay hundreds of millions in health care, “CWA Local 9415 Steward Randy Christensen told the crowd of over 200. “Everything we fought for in earlier years, they are trying to take away,” said the local’s Executive Vice President Sally Venable. Steward Bradley Dean warned, “If we allow them to make us pay more for health care, our kids will end up without any benefits.”

Oakland City Councilmember Jane Brunner and California State Assemblymember Loni Hancock expressed their solidarity. Every worker should have the same “Cadillac health care” that executives enjoy, said Brunner. Hancock told the workers, “You are fighting for workers in your industry all over the world, for health care, job security, a living wage, decent pensions.”

Before the rally, the workers marched through downtown Oakland to City Hall, their chants mingling with a rousing chorus of car, truck and bus horns.

Under SBC’s proposal, family coverage would cost workers at least $2,400 in yearly premiums, plus higher co-pays and deductibles. CWA insists that with the company garnering $8.5 billion in profits last year, and CEO Ed Whitacre receiving compensation of $19.2 million in 2003, SBC must share with the workers the wealth they produce. In a memo on the bargaining, the union pointed out that each SBC employee “generated an average of $250,000 in revenue and $42,000 in profits for the company over the past year.”

Instead, says CWA, the company is investing large sums to eliminate jobs by exporting them to nonunion worksites in other countries, with some 7,000 jobs already shifted out of the U.S.

SBC “won’t even talk about wages, job security, pensions or other issues until the union gives in to the company’s demands on health care,” Local 9415 organizer Yonah Diamond told the World. At press time no strike vote had been taken, and Diamond said a 30-day notice would be given before any strike.

Union demands also include an end to contracting out and replacement of permanent workers with temps, better pensions and health benefits for retirees, better working conditions to eliminate mandatory overtime and speedup, and improved voluntary transfer rights.

The author can be reached at mbechtel@pww.org.