Picket fences

Members of the Communications Workers of America picket in front of SBC's downtown San Antonio headquarters during the four-day strike. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)
Picket fences

By Lisa Sorg

Two sides of one strike

At noon last Saturday, a man and his three children set up lawn chairs and a cooler in front of SBC's headquarters at St. Mary's and Houston streets, where about a dozen members of Communications Workers of America were picketing on the second day of their four-day strike.

They stapled bright green poster board to plywood stakes, assembling signs that read "SBC Is the Bomb," "CWA President Should Resign," and "I `heart` You Mom."

"We're picketing the picketers," said the man, who gave his name only as Chris. Because of the strike, Chris' wife, who works on the 11th floor of SBC headquarters, had been relocated to Houston for at least four days, perhaps longer if a full-blown strike ensues. "The kids miss their mom. They're eating TV dinners."

"You need to get on that side of the line," said a crisply dressed woman wearing an SBC badge. She had come out of the headquarters accompanied by a security guard wearing a cowboy hat and a gun on his belt.

"Rules will be followed, kids," said Chris, as the strikers strolled by, 40 paces one direction and 40 the other. He scooted the chairs from behind the yellow caution tape that was strung from the building's pillars, and toward the street corner in a neat row on the public part of the sidewalk. "I always told you, follow the rules. They will be followed."

A month ago, the CWA warned SBC its 100,000 members would strike if the two parties couldn't agree on contract provisions about health care and job security `See "Busy signals," April 15-21`. Among the disputes are the co-pays, which because of escalating health insurance costs - SBC paid $3 billion last year - would increase from $20 to $30 by 2009, and the cost of emergency room visits, which would increase from $30 to $75 by 2008.

The SBC employee approached Chris again. "This could be against the city ordinance," she said, pointing at the chairs that blocked part of the sidewalk.

Chris moved the chairs again, on the public side of the caution tape, near a pillar and away from the corner.

"It's frustrating," he continued. "My wife used to belong to the union; now she's not." She used to be a "surplus employee," meaning she was laid off; she later got another job within SBC. "The union protects only those people who have been with the company for 10 or 20 years. They didn't protect her."

CWA president Ralph Cortez said the benefits that surplus employees receive were negotiated by the union; for example, when they leave, the workers get a year's pay. SBC offers surplus employees jobs within the company; of the 29,000 surplus workers, all but 400 retired or opted not to accept the offer. "The union saved jobs because of language in the contract," said Cortez as Chris' children walked with the picketers. "Ask that guy if he wants to give back everything we negotiated."

In addition to health care, the union is worried about job security for SBC employees. The tele-communications company, which generated $1.9 billion in profits in the first quarter of 2004, outsources its DSL telephone tech support to operators in India; it also wants to require American employees who move into high-tech jobs to work for wages and benefits competitive with lower-paying foreign contractors.

John Campbell is a line installer and father of six children who has worked for SBC for 29 years. His father worked for Southwestern Bell, a precursor to SBC before the phone companies were deregulated in 1996. "I agree, SBC's a great company. SBC does better than other companies do," Campbell said. "Their revenues are up because of the employees. Ed Whitacre makes 20, 30 million dollars a year. We're one of the reasons he makes those profits."

Andy Shaw, public relations officer for SBC approached Chris near the corner. "We thank you. We love this company," said Chris. "This is the best company in the world. What are they fighting for? Tuesday morning, I hope they're all out of a job." •

By Lisa Sorg