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SBC Workers Strike Over Wages, Health Benefits - 2004-05-21

More than 100,000 workers at the second-largest U.S. telephone company, SBC Communications, began a four-day strike Friday. The work stoppage affects millions of customers in 13 U.S. states, including California.

One of the key issues in the dispute is the rising cost of health insurance, a problem that has sparked labor disruptions in other industries. The company says it faces heavy competition from non-union firms, who offer their employees fewer benefits.

SBC says its health care costs have risen more than 10 percent a year in each of the last five years. The company's health expenses last year reached three billion dollars. The union has rejected a proposal to increase the share of the cost paid by the workers.

The other issue is job security. Shari Warfal is one of 700 workers who walked off the job Friday at an SBC facility in suburban Los Angeles. She notes that SBC outsources some of its service jobs to call centers overseas, and wants guarantees that jobs like hers will stay in the country.

"It's just scary," she said. "This country is going to have no jobs for our young people; they're going to all be in India or the Philippines, or wherever."

Officials at SBC, based in San Antonio, Texas, say their recent contract offer provides job security. In an effort to reassure their customers, company officials say their network is largely automated. Managers, retirees and replacement workers are manning other operations.

But some users got this message when they tried to contact SBC directory assistance: "At this time, we are experiencing trouble completing your call to directory assistance. Please try your call later."

Steve Getzug of SBC's California office acknowledges there are delays, especially for new installations and repairs. But the spokesman says that most California customers will have few problems.

"We have a strong contingency plan in place," he said. "This is a company that, working in California, is prepared for all sorts of situations, earthquakes, fires, floods, and we're confident that we can weather this."

SBC spokesmen offer the same assurance to customers in states as far east as Connecticut.

After three months of contract talks, members of the Communications Workers of America union rejected the latest company proposal, and SBC responded by saying it will withdraw its current offer just before the strike is scheduled to end at midnight Monday.