US: Union Plans Four-Day Strike Against SBC

Publisher Name: 
Associated Press

The union representing 102,000 employees of SBC Communications Inc. said Wednesday it would stage a four-day strike starting Friday because of a deadlock in contract negotiations with the nation's second biggest local phone company.

``This is an opportunity for the company to see how seriously we are taking this,'' said Candice Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Communications Workers of America.

Johnson said the strike would begin at 12:01 a.m. local time Friday in each affected time zone, and that workers would return to their positions at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday.

CWA president Morton Bahr said the union opted for a short strike to get its message across without doing too much harm to SBC.

``We know that a prolonged strike could cause a loss of major customers and do significant damage to the company,'' Bahr said. ``Hopefully that can be avoided.''

SBC spokesman Selim Bingol said the company did not have immediate comment about the strike, which comes after three months of negotiations involving a federal mediator.

In trading on the New York Stock Exchange, SBC shares fell 21 cents to close at $24.38.

The CWA on Tuesday gave SBC a 24-hour notice that it was prepared to initiate a work stoppage.

A strike would likely affect local phone service in SBC's 13-state coverage area, which includes Texas, California, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Connecticut. It would be CWA's first strike against SBC since a three-week action in 1983.

The telecommunications company says it has contingency plans for management employees, contract workers and retirees to handle key duties in case of a walkout.

The union has criticized the company for its positions on wages, health care costs and job security.

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 at the same time, the company wants workers to make higher medical co-payments.

Johnson said the lump-sum amount would not be added to workers' base pay, which will save SBC an estimated $1 billion over the next four years.

``You don't then shift health care costs to workers,'' she said. ``Use some of those savings to offset health care cost increases, which is only fair.''

In 2003, SBC was by far the most profitable of the four so-called ``Baby Bell'' local-phone companies, earning $8.5 billion on revenue of $40.8 billion. It is second in local phone service to Verizon Communications.

But since late 2001, SBC has cut about 30,000 jobs, roughly 15 percent of its work force, in an aggressive move to reduce operating costs.

SBC has repeatedly said that it wants to reach a new contract, but that the company is feeling tremendous pressure to control expenses because of growing competition from other telecom providers.

The union counters that SBC is a solid, financially healthy company with a bright future that CWA workers have helped to create and in whose benefits they deserve to share.

The CWA is the nation's largest communications and media union, representing more than 700,000 workers in telecommunications, journalism, publishing, airline customer service and other fields. It represents editorial and technical staff at The Associated Press.

AMP Section Name:Money & Politics