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Potential AT&T strike casts shadow over Akron area
[April 02, 2009]

Potential AT&T strike casts shadow over Akron area

Apr 02, 2009 (The Akron Beacon Journal - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- If about 110,000 AT&T workers nationwide go on strike Sunday morning, that will include about 500 AT&T workers in the Akron area.

Five regional union contracts expire on Sunday. A sixth that expires a few months later is being negotiated at the same time.

The major sticking point between AT&T and the Communications Workers of America has been increased health-care costs.

Members of Local 4302, which covers about 500 installation and repair technicians, construction technicians, engineers and call-center employees in the Akron area, are making strike preparations, said Bob Wise, local president and an AT&T employee.

Union members are watching news of negotiations, Wise said. Picket signs have been prepared and a picket line captains' meeting was held Wednesday night at the union hall on South Arlington Road.

Wise said union members are prepared to strike.

"It depends on how negotiations go. It could be we might choose to work day to day if there's progress being made. The national may choose to call a strike at that time. It's whatever they're at in those negotiations that determine whether we choose to strike," said Wise.

In the Akron region, strikers would picket at the major AT&T work areas, which could include West Bowery Street in downtown Akron, a construction garage on Waterloo Road and an installation and repair garage on Whipple Avenue in North Canton, said Wise.

The last time this batch of contracts was up for negotiation was five years ago, when workers had a four-day strike.

AT&T "is committed to bargaining a contract that will continue to provide good union jobs and benefits while maintaining the flexibility the company needs to operate in one of the most competitive industries in the marketplace," said AT&T spokesman Marty Richter, based in St. Louis.

The unions represented in the negotiations are the largest group of union employees for AT&T, Richter said. However, the land-line unit, which services traditional phone lines, is the unit of the company that is shrinking, while the wireless and Internet units are growing, he said.

Richter said the cost of health care continues to rise -- faster than the rate of inflation.

"This is an era when many companies are curtailing or totally abandoning health care. We are dedicated to health care," said Richter. However, union employees covered under the current contract pay only 8 percent of the company's health-care expenses while management and other union employees covered under other contracts pay a significantly higher portion of the expenses, he said.

The benefits the current union employees get are roughly the same as union employees with GM and Chrysler, said Richter. When asked whether the increased health-care costs are contributing to financial difficulties for AT&T similar to the auto makers, Richter said, "No. We're proud to be a profitable company and one that does not require a government bailout. We think that staying profitable is the best protection for a stable work force. That's why we need a contract that allows us to remain competitive." Richter said the company hopes there will not be a strike, but is prepared to provide the best possible service to all customers. There are managers and other workers lined up if there is a strike, he said.

Wise, the local union president, said the union expects management and replacement workers to step in.

"In my opinion, whether they're competent to do the work is another story," he said.

Ryan Lippe, a spokesman with the Ohio Consumers' Counsel, said the state's residential utility advocate will be monitoring the situation and making sure that consumers continue to get good service if there is a strike.

"AT&T needs to make sure they meet customer's needs," Lippe said. "We want to ensure that AT&T will be complying with Ohio's minimum telephone standards, including any credits that customers may be entitled to, regardless of whether there is a strike or not." Some of those minimum standards include credits if there are missed appointments or outages longer than 72 hours. However, AT&T could ask the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio for a special waiver to extend those time frames if there is a strike.

When asked whether union members were prepared to strike in a down economy, Wise said, "We've certainly prepared our members for quite a while now that this would be a difficult contract and to prepare financially for it. We have a strike benefit that will help." The vote in favor of a strike carried with 88 percent approval nationwide, he said.

Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or [email protected]

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