Union employees of SBC Communications Inc. picketed in front of the Nevada Legislature Friday for health-care benefits and job security.
Communication Workers of America local No. 9413 started a four-day strike Friday to protest the phone giant's latest contract offer.
"The company also wanted to increase premiums $150 to $250 per month for retirees," said Barbara Welling, president of local No. 9143. "These are the ones who can least afford it. Some are on pensions of $300 per month."
Walt Ehlen, a retired SBC communications technician, was on Carson City's picket line Friday.
His wife has diabetes, he has high blood pressure and most insurance companies don't want to talk to them about private insurance, which would cost between $400 and $600 per month, he said.
"These are expenses most retirees haven't anticipated," he said. "People on fixed incomes are very dependent on these benefits."
The same issue affects regular employees, Wellington said.
"Right now, SBC is proposing a five-year agreement and is trying to shift millions of dollars over the life of the contract onto the backs of their employees," she said. "There's no reason for it. Last year, the company paid SBC Chairman Ed Whitaker a total annual compensation of $53.3 million."
The company posted a first-quarter profit for 2004 of $1.9 billion dollars and last year, made $50,000 per non-salaried employee, Wellington said.
"That was after wages and benefits," she said. "This company is very productive and profitable, so we're confused. Why are they asking us pay more for benefits when they're one of the most profitable communications companies in the country?"
SBC has proposed a 4 percent lump-sum payment to workers in the first year of its proposed five-year deal, with annual base-pay increases of at least 2.25 percent in the next four years, but it is also asking workers for higher medical co-payments.
Communication workers spokeswoman Candice Johnson said the company's proposal would increase the average worker's monthly health-care expense to about $70, double the amount under the expired contract.
Because SBC's revenue from its core local phone service is dropping, the union wants its members to have access to jobs in growing areas within the company, among them Internet support, wireless data service and call centers.
Outside contractors, including those with workers in low-wage overseas locations, now handle most of that work.
The union said it is preparing a nationwide campaign, with the support of other major unions, to get consumers to switch their phone service to other union-covered carriers.
Kent Jonas, an attorney representing SBC's management in labor issues for the San Francisco-based law firm Thelen Reid & Preist, wondered what the union's walkout hoped to achieve.
"It's likely to be pretty ineffective in influencing SBC management to do anything at all," he said. "Will a consumer notice? I think only on the margins, so they're not going to get a lot of consumer pressure. It's not comparable to a strike in a retail setting."
The workers association represents 640 members throughout Nevada and more than 110,000 people in 13 states, including Texas, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma and Wisconsin.
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