Sprint, union still divided over contract

By Thomas Wilson

STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   Local union employees of Sprint FON Group say they are looking for better benefits -- not major pay raises -- as the company and union leaders plan a tentative return to negotiations later this month.
   "We are not on strike," said Steve Roberts, a 33-year employee of Sprint and member of Communications Workers of America Local 3871, located in Bluff City.
   Roberts was among a handful of Sprint employees who staged an "informational picket" during their lunch hour at the telecommunication company's Elizabethton office on East F Street Thursday afternoon.
   "The union has made itself available to meet with the company," said Roberts. "We are making information available to the public regarding the situation."
   The situation is the ongoing negotiation between Sprint and union members on a new contract.
   "It is over our current benefits that we have," said Roger Forbes, a 32-year veteran of Sprint. "They cut our benefits the last time, and we accepted it because they said they would make it up at the next contract."
   The previous three-year contract between Sprint and the union expired on September 1. Union member employees have continued working without a contract.
   The contract affects roughly 380 union member employees out of a total of 1,600 Sprint employees across the Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia region, according to Sprint spokesman Tom Matthews.
   Matthews said Thursday the company had essentially pulled all proposed contract changes off the table. Sprint's last offer came in September.
   "We will negotiate in good faith; we just need the union to come back with some reasonable shift in their demands," said Matthews. "What they are asking for essentially is unreasonable and unrealistic in the type of economy and the state of the industry right now."
   Roberts and fellow employees who belong to the local 3871 office work on Sprint telephone lines in the region from Mountain City to Mosheim as well as Virginia.
   Local telephone company union members last went on strike in 1979.
   "We are fighting for our retirement and insurance benefits," said Forbes. "It seems like every time we get a raise, our insurance goes up."
   Union administrators have also made an issue of the salary, bonus and stock options of William T. Esrey, who as the CEO (Chief Executive Officer) of Sprint Corporation has earned millions in recent years.
   "The CEO's salary and benefits are determined by the board of directors and really has no relationship to what is being discussed here," said Matthews.
   Matthews called Sprint "one of the bright spots in the telecommunications industry" right now. "Some of the unreasonable would potentially diminish that position," he said.
   He attributed the telecommunications sector's difficulties to a still sluggish U.S. economy and fallout from the WorldCom accounting controversy this summer.
   WorldCom filed for reorganization under Chapter 11 bankruptcy in July after restating its financial statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission in June.
   "WorldCom created a tremendous vacuum that really sucked down a lot of good companies," said Matthews. "There is no reason for Sprint to be valued where it is in terms of stock prices. Sprint along with one or two are really the shining light of the whole industry."
   Sprint -- a subsidiary of Sprint Corporation -- reported second quarter earnings of their Local Telecommunications Division with operating revenues of $1.54 billion for the second quarter of 2002 compared to $1.55 billion in the first quarter of 2002 and the second quarter last year.
   Operating income was $481 million -- up 3 percent from $466 million a year ago, according to the earnings report.
   "We will rebound, and I hope rebound faster than the sector as a whole," said Matthews. "Right now it is a tough business to be in."
   Both sides said Thursday that union representatives and Sprint officials were expected to meet at the bargaining table in late October.