BY BECKY ELLIS
ST. PAUL, Minnesota - Thirty-five thousand members of the Communication Workers of America (CWA) went on strike at midnight August 15 against US West, which provides phone service to 25 million customers in 14 western states from Washington to Iowa. The last strike for these union locals was in 1983, when the company was still part of AT&T. The main issues in the strike are mandatory overtime and a so-called pay- per-performance plan. Strikers are determined to fight these proposals after facing tremendous speedup and mandatory overtime during the past two years.
Thousands of workers have been forced to work 60 hours or more a week over the past couple of years. The company's proposal is to have unlimited forced overtime this year and a limit next year of 65 hours per week. The company wants to slash premium pay for overtime after eight hours so that workers could be forced to work 12 or 14 hours a day at straight time. It also proposes to remove double-time for work over 49 hours in the week.
In the past five years, US West has reduced the number of union jobs by 12.5 percent while the number of phone lines serviced has risen by 20 percent. This "downsizing" has caused widely reported service problems in US West territory, while enabling the company to use bigger profits to finance new businesses, including its new cable venture.
A few days before the strike, union locals in several cities ran an ad with a picture of a milk carton with the picture of a US West worker on it and the caption, "Missing: US West worker - last seen working forced overtime for the phone company. His family misses him. Please help." Several workers in the St. Paul repair call handling center report their families cut out the ad, taped in a picture of their family member, and put it up in their homes.
The company wants to have repair operators and technicians on a new program where their pay would depend on how quickly and accurately their work is done. Workers would be paid as if they were on a piece rate assembly line, with 20 percent of a workers pay dependent on whether the repair was made on time and on whether or not there is repeat trouble.
Repair operators would be paid no money for calls that resulted in no repair. For example, if someone reports their caller identification system doesn't work and the operator explains that all they need to do is replace the batteries in the unit, the operator gets no credit for that call. A technician might lose money if he or she has to take extra time dealing with deteriorating cables or equipment that US West should have upgraded.
When asked about the new pay plan, Mike Phillips, who has worked at US West for 30 years, said, "I don't like it. It is going to cause infighting. It's going to be hard on new people."
A similar pay plan was forced onto sales consultants three years ago. More than two-thirds of those workers are unable to earn more than the base pay, and turnover in the department is very high. Many workers learn the trade and then either transfer to another department or go to work for another telecommunications company.
This pay plan clearly is an attempt to divide the workforce, in addition to being a way to up the profits for the company. In the last week before the strike, eight sales consultants in St. Paul decided to pull out of the union. They are among the few who do make more money on the new plan and disagree with the union's position against it. The company is also trying to impose a new health proposal requiring each worker to go with the cheapest HMO in their city. To maintain their current doctors, workers would be required to pay an extra $800-$1,000 a year.
Many CWA locals held rallies and mass picketing at noon August 17. Three hundred strikers rallied at US West's Minnesota headquarters in downtown Minneapolis.
In Des Moines, Iowa, about 250 members of CWA Local 7102, many wearing blue union T-shirts, rallied in front of the company offices there. Sarah Downing, president of the local, addressed the strikers with an update on negotiations. There are about 1,000 strikers in the Des Moines area. Following the talk, the unionists marched around the building.
Anticipating the strike could last a while, the Des Moines workers are planning to rally at 5:30 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at the East University Ave. switching center, and on Wednesdays at the downtown US West office.
Becky Ellis is a member CWA Local 7201 at US West in St.
Paul. Tim Mailhot, a member of the United Steelworkers of
America in Des Moines, contributed to this article.
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