19, 2004, 10:00PM
By JON VAN
A four-day strike against SBC Communications will start Friday morning and last until Tuesday, the Communications Workers of America said Wednesday.
The action, which will involve 100,000 workers across 13 states, comes after more than three months of negotiations between the union and the San Antonio-based phone company failed to produce an agreement. SBC employs 7,254 people in Houston.
"We are making this limited job action right now to drive it home to SBC that our members are serious about securing their future at SBC," Morton Bahr, the union's president, said.
SBC said it will launch its strike contingency plans, which call for managers, contract workers and some retirees to handle key duties in case of a walkout.
Bahr said 29,000 communications union jobs at SBC have been lost during the last three years and that SBC is outsourcing jobs associated with new technology, such as installing WiFi hot spots and Internet telephony.
Edward Whitacre, SBC's chairman and chief executive, sent a letter to all SBC employees on Wednesday saying that the company has "now gone as far as we can go in modifying our proposals in response to union demands."
Whitacre said that SBC's wage offers are better than those negotiated by the union last year with Verizon Communications.
He said that the company had agreed to refrain from further layoffs for three years in its proposal for a five-year agreement.
Bahr said that his union is staging a limited job action because it understands that a prolonged strike could cause SBC to lose major customers. He also outlined a possible future action that would urge union members who are SBC customers to drop SBC and get their service from AT&T instead.
He estimated there are as many as 5 million union families that get phone service from SBC and said that AT&T supplies an alternative service in 11 of the 13 states SBC serves.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
21, 2004, 11:43PM
Thousands walk off job in Houston
By L.M. SIXEL
The barbecue pits were smoking. Tejano music was playing. The coolers were chock full of cold drinks.
To a casual observer, the tarps and picnic tables arrayed in a vacant lot on the north side of Houston on Friday afternoon had all the look and feel of a pre-Memorial Day picnic.
But the folks in the lawn chairs trying to beat the heat weren't talking about sports, families or politics. They were talking in the shadows of the SBC building about escalating health care costs, outsourced jobs to India and whether they could ever afford to retire.
It wasn't a typical picnic. But the walkout at SBC isn't a typical strike, either.
On Friday, the Communication Workers of America launched a four-day walkout against telecommunications giant SBC to protest the company's proposal to increase health care costs, outsource more jobs and deny union members access to high-paying high-tech jobs at SBC.
About 100,000 SBC employees in 13 states began striking Friday morning, including 5,000 in Houston who spent the day picketing at the company's office buildings and eating barbecue.
They're planning to return to work Tuesday.
While the strategy is unusual — most strikes are open-ended until a deal is reached — the union hopes to send SBC a message with the short-term walkout.
"We wanted to send a wake-up call that our members are concerned," said Candice Johnson, the union's spokeswoman in Washington.
The union doesn't want to hurt consumers and cause them to jump to another communications provider, Johnson said. And a four-day strike won't hurt employees as much economically as an extended walkout.
In response, SBC has brought in 40,000 managers, retired managers and vendors to provide customer service, fix the phone lines and answer phones while employees are striking.
"The network is fully functional," SBC spokeswoman Callie Works-Leary said. "It's been a very smooth transition."
However, when customers call SBC to inquire about bills or report a problem with service, they're warned to expect a delay because of the strike.
"We appreciate your patience during this difficult time," a recording at the business office says.
To union members who have seen 29,000 jobs disappear over the past three years, job security is critical.
Karen Sandifer said her days as a service representative are getting slower. Many calls she once handled are now routed to SBC's offices in India, said Sandifer, who was wearing a red T-shirt: "United We Bargain, Divided We Beg."
"I don't think I'm going to see it," she said, about her impending retirement in 18 months.
Employees want to gain access to the 55,000 fast-growing high-technology jobs that SBC has been giving to employees in units with no bargaining agreement, as well as shipping to India, said Claude Cummings, president of the union's Local 6222 in Houston. The high-paying jobs include servicing combined voice and Internet phone lines, DSL lines and data communication networks.
Those are the jobs of the future, but SBC won't allow bargaining employees to have access to them when they have been laid off from their more traditional jobs, Cummings said. Already, 3,000 of those jobs are done in India.
Works-Leary said no union-represented job has been lost to overseas outsourcing. But she said the company has to do all it can to remain competitive, especially because it has to compete with cable companies that have lower cost structures.
Union members are also worried about the company's proposal to shift an increasing portion of the cost of health care to employees. Over the years, SBC employees have agreed to accept smaller-than-average raises in exchange for low-cost but top-notch health care benefits.
Luis Flores Sr. retired two years ago from SBC and is concerned that he will have a hard time paying more for prescriptions and visits to the doctor.
"That's hard to do on a fixed income," said Flores, 51, who receives a $1,500 a month pension that he supplements with part-time work.
"I know they want to make a living, but not at our expense," said Flores, who spent 31 years and 16 days at the company.
But the rich health care benefits are getting increasingly difficult to afford, according to SBC.
Under the company's proposal, employees would still not have to pay monthly premiums, according to a memo to employees from SBC Chairman Ed Whitacre.
Even with the increase in co-pays, the employee contribution would be less than 10 percent of the cost, which is significantly lower than most other company health insurance plans, according to the memo.
"On average, most Americans with health insurance pay about 38 percent of the cost of their health care, and 90 percent of those with company-provided health care are required to pay a monthly contribution," according to the memo.
The impact of the proposed co-pay increases would average only about $35 per month, according to the company.
A dozen issues divide
May 25, 2004,
Union wins most of what it sought from SBC
By L.M. SIXEL
SBC and the Communications Workers of America have reached a tentative five-year agreement that gives employees job security, access to high-growth jobs and health insurance with no monthly premiums.
SBC employees walked off their jobs Friday morning for a four-day work stoppage to push the bargaining along. About 40,000 SBC managers and retired executives stepped in to install phones and handle customer billing questions during the four-day strike.
"We know we got it because of the four-day walkout," said Claude Cummings, president of the union's Local 6222 in Houston. There was more movement by the company in the last 24 to 36 hours than in the previous 90 days of negotiations, he said.
Cummings was particularly pleased employees won the right to work in the fast-growing units of the company and that SBC promised not to lay off existing employees during the contract.
"That was a biggie," said Cummings.
SBC CEO Edward Whitacre praised the agreement.
"It is time now for the SBC family to come together quickly and rededicate ourselves to being the best communications company we can be," he said in a prepared statement.
The four-day walkout sent the message that workers meant business, but at the same time it wasn't a terrible financial burden on the company, customers or employees.
Union leaders planned the work stoppage so employees would lose only a day of work in each of two separate pay periods, Cummings said. And the managers had to work weekends, Cummings said with a laugh.
He estimated that about 95 percent of union members in Houston honored the picket lines.
Among the details of the tentative agreement:
• Wages: Employees will receive average base wage increases of 2.3 percent per year for the five-year contract and lump sums averaging $300 per year, according to SBC's news release. The initial wage increase is retroactive to April 4.
• Health care: Employees will continue to pay no monthly premiums. However, co-payments for drugs and doctor visits and emergency room services will rise for most plan participants.
To help offset the higher costs, employees will receive cash bonuses of $1,000. Retirees will receive $2,500, according to the union news release.
• New jobs: The agreement gives union workers access to the company's hottest jobs including FTTP (Fiber to the Premise), Voice over Internet Protocol, wireless Internet, video services and business data services, according to the union. The union and SBC agreed to bring back technical support jobs from overseas when the current outsourcing agreement with Accenture expires in 2007.
• Job security: SBC and the union agreed to provide employees currently represented by the union with a guaranteed job offer if their existing jobs are eliminated. The guarantee will not cover new employees.
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle