Telephone Workers Pressure SBC as Contract Expires

A day before SBC—America’s second largest telecommunications company—held its shareholder meeting in Columbus, Ohio, the company reached a tentative agreement on health care for 90,000-plus retirees and their families with the Communications Workers of America (CWA).

Months before the national contract for over 100,000 SBC workers had expired and bargaining started, SBC announced that it was going to force retirees, who are on fixed incomes, to pay around $2,400 per year for their health care in 2005. Workers were outraged.

Even though retiree benefits are not a mandatory bargaining subject, meaning that CWA could not force SBC to discuss the issue during bargaining, the union found ways to keep the issue in the limelight.


Thousands of CWA activists joined a March 4 Jobs with Justice-backed “Health Care Action Day,” which called for national health care for all.

The union started mobilizing members for the April 30 shareholder meeting. “We had over 1,000 retirees and active SBC members ready to go into the shareholders meeting,” said Seth Rosen, a staff member with CWA District 4. SBC agreed to a last-minute deal and the union called off the rally; instead, 1,000 members held their own shareholders meeting.

“I retired early—when I was 48—because my benefits allowed me to,” said Bill Kiener of Local 4320 in Columbus, who spoke at the shareholder rally. “But I had a major heart attack, and needed a heart transplant. My medicines cost $2,000-3,000 a month, but I don’t have any co-pays. It’s important to fight to retain what we have gained in the past and not see it lost because someone wants more profits.”

Under the last-minute agreement retirees will not pay premiums for their health care for another five years.


Even though the union and company remain far apart on health care, job security, pensions, and wages, CWA has been able to use some of the bargaining deadlines to win tactically. “Deadlines help create movement within the negotiations. Membership mobilization activities on the local level can’t do that in and of themselves,” explained Rosen. “Deadlines, when something concrete will happen, can focus workers’ power.”

Pressure building up around the expiration of the contract on April 3 allowed CWA to force SBC to withdraw its demand that active members also pay premiums for health care.

On April 7, CWA gave SBC 30-day notice of its intention to strike. The strike vote was authorized by 90 percent.



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In response to SBC’s demand that workers turn in all their work belongings shortly before the May 8 strike deadline, the union organized members to do this collectively.

“SBC was trying to scare members about being on strike, so we wanted to send a message that we’re not afraid. For example, a lot of locals turned in the keys to their trucks in one big envelope, so they got all messed up,” said Rosen.

After the May 8 deadline fell, the union agreed to extend the contract on a day-to-day basis. Pat Telesco, representative for CWA Local 1298 in Connecticut, said: “Members here are ready to walk if necessary, and the company is getting that message. I think this explains why we’re hearing that progress is being made on the big issues at the national table.”


The union developed a long-term strategic campaign around the contract well in advance of expiration. Months before bargaining started, the CWA organized mobilization trainings in each regional SBC grouping (New England, the Midwest, the Southwest, California, and Nevada).

These trainings educated members about the changes in SBC and the telecommunications industry and evaluated SBC’s corporate strategy for productivity increases and its outsourcing goals.

Members discussed what they needed to do to increase the union’s bargaining power, which included an analysis of the 1998 SBC contract mobilization and strike timeline; members then created a 2004 contract campaign timeline.

Finally, members developed talking points in order to reach out to co-workers around the main bargaining issues.


A mobilization network was put in place to coordinate activities in the various regions and the union signed up over 30 percent of SBC workers on an email update list called “Unity @ SBC.”

Mobilization activities ranged from informational pickets to members coordinating to all wear red (CWA’s color) T-shirts on certain days. Some locals picketed the locations where managers were being trained to replace workers.

According to Telesco, SBC announced it was confident there would be a settlement in May.