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SBC, union report progress amid strike

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.
/ Source: Reuters

The union representing 100,000 striking employees at SBC Communications Inc. said talks had progressed Monday as the union’s four-day strike neared its scheduled end.

SBC, the No. 2 U.S. local phone company, said the strike by some 60 percent of its work force had not affected its network. SBC also said it had called in extra workers in three Midwestern states where weekend storms had caused outages.

The Communications Workers of America, which has not called a strike against SBC since 1983, said the two sides had resumed talks at four regional meetings on Friday, after national talks over health care, job security, wages and pensions ground to a halt last week.

In a notice to members Monday evening, CWA said issues “at the regional tables have narrowed,” but still included job security.

SBC says the talks must produce some cost cuts that will help it fight new competitors, including nonunion cable companies planning to jump into phone services.

The union said it was limiting its strike to four days, ending at midnight Monday, to minimize the financial damage to SBC while leaving open the possibility of further action, such as calling for SBC customers to switch service to AT&T Corp. .  SBC said it would withdraw its current offers if the union did not accept them by the midnight deadline.

The health-care dispute between the two sides centers on how much workers should contribute to the rising cost of coverage and how much retirees should have to pay.

The parties also have been at odds over job security. SBC has said it would guarantee job offers in the same state to employees targeted for layoffs for the first three years of a five-year contract. The company also says it will allow union workers access to jobs in growing parts of the company, such as high-speed Internet access, at competitive wages.

The union has said SBC’s job guarantee would be a take-it-or-leave-it proposition for workers, and that transfers to growth sectors could face unacceptable pay cuts under the company’s offer.