Local Sprint workers poised to go on strike today

By Thomas Wilson

STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   BLUFF CITY -- Unless an 11th hour deal is reached, the 385 Sprint employees represented by Local 3871 of Communications Workers of America will be among 2,700 Sprint telephone workers to go on strike effective at 1 p.m. today.
   "Unless something happens, we are going on strike," local president Eddie Hicks told a packed house of Sprint employees represented by CWA 3871 at the headquarters here on Monday night.
   Union negotiators and the company began negotiations for a new contract in July. Negotiations broke off between union negotiators and the company last Friday. Local Sprint workers have been working without a contract since Sept. 1.
   "Our main hang-up is health care insurance, future health care insurance for future retirees and retirement benefits," said Jerry Range, executive vice president of 3871. "These are very important issues," said Range. "Unless Sprint moves on those, we will definitely be on strike."
   A member of the local contract negotiating team, Range said the issues prominent for the company and the union nationwide center on Sprint shifting additional health cost responsibilities to union workers and future retiree benefits, he said.
   Tom Matthews, spokesman for Sprint's regional office in Charlotte, N.C. said Monday that the company had withdrawn virtually all of their proposals with 3871. Matthews told the Star if Sprint employees went out, the company was prepared to reassign personnel to technical positions and bring in outside workers.
   "The bottom line is we are going to run the business, because customer service is the foremost consideration," said Matthews. "They want to shift more of the costs to us," he said. "We are also hung up they wanted a one-year contract and we wanted a three-year contract."
   Range said the major local issue revolves around the annual attrition of Sprint workers and their replacement with contracted workers.
   "They want to be able, if 10 people from Sprint leave in a year, and not replace them with contract workers," he said. That would reduce the overall number of permanent Sprint workers and dilute the union's membership of full-time Sprint employees, said Range, an Elizabethton resident and 36-year veteran of Sprint.
   "We are not going to stand for contractors taking our jobs and eroding our membership," he said. "We want a say-so in this health care cost shifting. These are real critical issues."
   Matthews said the use of contract work by non-permanent employees was dictated on short-term work that frequently popped up in the telecommunications business.
   "You may need something for only a month or two, and that is fairly typical for us in our business," said Matthews. "That is something they want to have included that we've been hesitant on."
   Hicks indicated that the contractor issue appeared to be a major stumbling block between both sides. Matthews said the company had proposed extending a one-year contract with a "lump sum" payment of wages to give the union and the company a wider window of negotiation time for a longer contract.
   Union workers are employed with Sprint's Local Telecommunications Division (LTD), which serves approximately 8.2 million access lines in 18 states. Telephone technicians install and maintain the business and residential telephone communications equipment as well as central office telephone equipment provided by Sprint.
   Hicks said the last strike involving #3871 occurred in October 1979, when union members picketed for 29 days. He said at that time, the local had over 1,300 members.
   The international CWA president sets a strike date for locals. Hicks said Sprint workers came within 30 minutes of striking three years ago when the two sides were negotiating their contract.
   "We had a strike deadline set for midnight, and at 11:30 p.m. I got a phone call," said Hicks.
   However, stopping this strike could be more problematic, Hicks added. The midnight deadline allowed union leaders to notify members of the situation. If an agreement is reached before 1 p.m. today, today's strike deadline could still result in a temporary walkout by Sprint workers.
   Union members also said they wanted a pay raise of three percent instead of the two proposed by the company.
   "We feel that we need to be at least at the rate of inflation," said Range. "We should have at least the normal rate of inflation."
   Matthews said another union demand that the company pay 100 percent of employee's health care insurance was "just unreasonable."
   "That is something that very few, if any, companies can afford these days,"said Matthews. Sprint has been in negotiations dealing with separate contracts at seven tables: two in North Carolina, as well as Pennsylvania, Florida, Oregon-Washington, Tennessee-Virginia and Indiana. The company recently reached a signed agreement with a local in Pittsburgh, Pa., and had reached a second tentative agreement with a CWA local in the Hickory/Madison, N.C., area last week.
   In addition to Sprint, CWA 3871 represents workers with Comcast cable television and Hillside Nursing Home.
   Both the company and union representatives stated that a strike was not a possibility neither wanted to see occur.
   "It is something we don't want to see, and I would think most Sprint employees would not want to see either," said Matthews.