Progress Reported In SBC Talks

A union representing 100,000 striking workers at SBC Communications Inc. and negotiators for the nation's second largest local phone provider say intense bargaining is producing progress toward a new contract, but sizable hurdles remain.

Hundreds of striking workers were expected to march with signs from their headquarters to SBC headquarters on Monday, the last day in a four-day strike by the Communications Workers of America over health care and job security issues.

The walkout is scheduled to end just after midnight Tuesday in each of the affected time zones.

About 400 striking workers were expected to participate in the San Antonio march on Monday.

"You guys want good pictures, you better send a photographer, because it's going to be awesome," Ralph Cortez, president of CWA Local 6143, told the San Antonio Express-News in Monday's online edition.

Negotiations were conducted through Sunday at regional tables in Chicago; New Haven, Conn; Austin, Texas; and Pleasanton, Calif.

The regional tables correspond to the former standalone local-phone companies that now comprise San Antonio-based SBC, which is the primary local-phone provider in 13 states: Texas, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma and Wisconsin.

"Negotiators reported that we have made progress today, but are continuing to work through our key issues," read a prepared statement on the CWA Web site late Sunday night.

SBC spokesman Walt Sharp said a gap still remained between the sides over how much the CWA workers would pay toward their medical costs and whether union workers could fill jobs in the company's growth areas now staffed largely by contract employees.

"We're telling our employees today that negotiations are continuing and that we see that as encouraging," Sharp said Sunday.

He would not talk about developments on specific aspects of the contract talks.

The union said that "considerable progress" has been made on the issue of its members getting access to the fast-growing sectors, which includes Internet support, wireless data and fiber-optics installation. However, the union is also pushing SBC to agree that CWA workers in fields with declining manpower needs be given priority for positions in their hometown.

The company says it will give each surplused worker a guaranteed job offer somewhere in the same state, which is an offer the CWA finds inadequate.

"With that, you might have to move your family many hundreds of miles for a lesser job with less pay," said union spokeswoman Candice Johnson. "That's something that we're fighting to protect."

Since early Friday, the jobs of striking workers — telephone operators, clerical workers, linemen and service representatives — have been filled by 40,000 SBC managers, contract workers and some retirees.

While there have been some reported problems with directory assistance, things overall have gone with minimal problems, said Mike Wilson, who oversees a high-tech SBC command post in San Antonio staffed around the clock. Similar logistics centers exist in the four SBC regions, among them one in Dallas.

Wilson said some fill-in workers have been moved from one SBC region to another to cover a staffing need and some vandalism has occurred in California that required attention.

There are routine logistical issues to be handled — for example, getting food to the replacement employees working 12- to 14-hour shifts and how to deal with potential run-ins along the picket lines.

"If they need some advice they can get it here," said Wilson. "The biggest issue for us is remaining in touch (with the fill-in workers) so we know what's happening. We want them doing the real job."