Contentious negotiations about health care costs have Lawrence-area employees of SBC Communications preparing for a possible strike.
Officials with the area chapter, Local 6407 of the Communication Workers of America, have formed a task force to provide information to the roughly 100 SBC union members in Lawrence and Ottawa.
Wendy Lindsey, public information officer for the task force, said union members were preparing for a strike because contract negotiations between SBC and the union were making little progress.
The union and the company have been negotiating since early February to replace a three-year contract that covers nonmanagement SBC employees. The contract is set to expire Saturday, but the union has promised to give the company a 30-day notice of any strike. Lindsey said the union could decide this week whether to give the notice.
The San Antonio-based company, which formerly operated in the Lawrence area as Southwestern Bell, hasn't had a strike since 1983. Lindsey, an employee at the company's Lawrence-based Kansas Relay Center, said employees were worried it may be necessary now.
"I would say there is some nervousness about the situation," Lindsey said. "The mood with these negotiations is much different than it has been in the past."
The area employees that would be affected include repair workers and employees at the Kansas Relay Center, which provides operator services for the hearing impaired.
"A strike would be a big deal. It would pretty much affect everything," Lindsey said. "For example, in Lawrence, we have a crew of cable locators. They come out and locate cables before you dig. If there is a strike, that probably wouldn't happen. That's a pretty big deal in this town because there's a lot of construction."
Walt Sharp, a spokesman for SBC, said strike talk was premature. The earliest a strike could begin would be late April or early May, he said, adding that corporate and union leaders have pledged to keep negotiating to solve differences.
If a strike does happen, Sharp said the company would be prepared.
"Of course we have contingencies," he said. "We'll take the necessary steps to ensure that we're able to provide the best service that we possibly can."
The negotiations have centered on health-care costs. SBC union employees typically pay between 4 percent and 7 percent of their health care costs. SBC is asking the union to pay more.
"We believe it is fair and reasonable for all employees to pay something for their health care," Sharp said. "I don't know what you pay for your health care, but to have 95 percent of your health care paid for is very much the exception to the rule."
He declined to comment on how much more the company was asking the union to pay. Lindsey said it was in the 25 percent to 40 percent range, which is consistent with what the company's nonunion employees pay.
The change is necessary because the telecommunications industry has suffered during the economic downturn, Sharp said. Since 2000, the company's revenues declined by $11 billion. SBC, like other traditional telecommunications companies, is facing greater competition from cable and wireless providers.
But union officials say the company can afford to keep its current health care benefits. According to the union's Web site, SBC profits have increased 5.5 percent since 2001, jumping from $7 billion to $7.4 billion.
"We don't want to break the company," Lindsey said. "We just want to keep what we have."
Charles Krider, a professor at the Kansas University School of Business, said the SBC negotiations were typical of other recent spats between labor and management. Health care issues were at the center of a grocery workers strike in California, he said, and health care costs have been a sticking point in negotiations with workers at Boeing.
"Companies that are facing increased competition aren't able to pass their higher health care costs along to customers by raising prices," Krider said. "That's the situation SBC is in. They're under great pressure in terms of losing customers in their traditional lines of business. They have no pricing power."
The negotiations are taking place in Washington, D.C., moderated by officials from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.
The Communication Workers of America is the largest union at SBC. The contract under negotiation covers about 100,000 employees.