Phone Workers Walk Out At SBC

Nearly 100,000 unionized SBC Communications Inc. workers began a four-day strike early Friday to protest the local-phone giant's latest contract offer.

After a late-evening shift answering directory-assistance calls, Elinda Belous answered the call of her union.

"Just let them feel a little pinch," Belous said of the brief work stoppage, triggered when contract talks between SBC and the Communications Workers of America bogged down over health care and job security issues.

But turning the tables on the union, the company notified its leadership Thursday night that it would drop its most recent proposal and start from scratch unless the union accepts it by 11:59 p.m. Monday — two minutes before strike is scheduled to end.

"There's been three months' negotiation. There've been six proposals. And the company's position is that the current proposal that's in front of the union is a fair plan, is a very good plan," said Mike Marker, an SBC spokesman based in Indiana.

An after-hours telephone call to CWA headquarters in Washington, D.C., seeking comment on the company's latest position, was not immediately returned early Friday.

SBC, the second-largest of the four "Baby Bell" local-phone providers and by far the most profitable in 2003, said about 40,000 managers, contract workers and retirees will cover key tasks during the strike.

CWA represents more than 100,000 SBC workers in 13 states: Texas, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma and Wisconsin.

Dozens of members of CWA Local 6143 in San Antonio were on the picket line at 12:01 a.m. Friday, when the strike officially began. They cheered loudly when the operators were escorted out of the SBC building by union leaders.

A 23-year SBC employee, Belous went through the last CWA strike against SBC — a four-week walkout in 1983. "It almost killed me," she remembered. "I'm praying it won't be that again."

Belous knows many of the fill-in operators here, among them managers who used to work alongside her, and she says there were no hard feelings. She even gave some of them hugs before leaving.

But, she said, "There's no way the people in that building can perform the duties that I've done for 23 years."

SBC said consumers would see no immediate effect of the strike, but problems were evident just moments after it began. A reporter in Los Angeles who called directory assistance at 12:05 a.m. first received a recorded message saying SBC was having trouble handling the call, and subsequent calls rang unanswered.

In Meriden, Conn., nearly 200 striking workers gathered at SBC's technical center and cheered as co-workers walked out after their shift and joined their ranks.

Employee Robert Brown believes the company is obligated to provide its workers with adequate benefits.

"I have two children, so benefits are everything," said Brown, who lives in nearby Middletown.

SBC has proposed a 4 percent lump-sum payment to workers in the first year of its proposed five-year deal, with annual base-pay increases of at least 2.25 percent in the next four years. But it is also asking workers for higher medical co-payments.

CWA spokeswoman Candice Johnson said the company's proposal would increase the average worker's monthly health care expense to about $70, double the amount under the expired contract.

And because SBC's revenue from its core local-phone service is dropping, the union wants its members to have access to jobs in growing areas within the company, among them Internet support, wireless data service and call centers. Outside contractors, including those with workers in low-wage overseas locations, now handle most of that work.

The union said it is preparing a nationwide campaign, with the support of other major unions, to get consumers to switch their phone service to other union-covered carriers.

Kent Jonas, an attorney who represents management in labor issues for the San Francisco-based law firm Thelen Reid & Priest, wondered just what the union's walkout hoped to achieve.

"It's likely to be pretty ineffective in influencing SBC management to do anything at all," Jonas said. "Will a consumer notice? I think only on the margins, so they're not going to get a lot of consumer pressure. It's not comparable to a strike in a retail setting," he said.