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SBC workers begin four-day strike

/ Source: The Associated Press

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

Belous was one of nearly 100,000 unionized SBC Communications Inc. workers who began a four-day strike early Friday to protest the local-phone giant’s latest contract offer.

“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, including the use of low-wage workers overseas.

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 the 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.

The union, in a statement on its Web site, said the tactic by SBC wouldn’t work and the rank-and-file remains united and determined to win contract improvements.

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.

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

Six hours later, another Los Angeles reporter waited for nearly a minute before an operator picked up. After another delay, the reporter asked for her own home phone number and was given the wrong information.

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. Workers include operators, linesmen, engineers, clerical workers, installers and service representatives.

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.”

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 double the average worker’s monthly health care expense to about $70.

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 and wireless data service. Outside contractors, including those with workers in low-wage overseas locations, now handle most of that work.

Tameka Wilson, an SBC employee who was outside the company’s downtown Detroit offices on Friday, said she worried about her billing job being outsourced.

“I believe anything is possible if they can move technical jobs to India,” Wilson said.

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, 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.”