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Contract negotiations continue past August 15 strike deadline
Qwest takes aim at CWA

By Garrett Booker and Paul Dean | August 19, 2005 | Page 11

PORTLAND, Ore.--Chanting "We are the union, the mighty, mighty union," Communications Workers of America (CWA) members and their supporters from many other union locals converged on the Qwest call center in the heart of downtown last week. They came to rally the ranks in preparation for a possible strike if the 14-state negotiations in Denver do not produce a contract palatable to the rank and file.

Negotiations continued beyond an August 15 strike deadline as Socialist Worker went to press, but the two sides remained far apart on key issues.

The more than 300 call center workers represented by CWA local 7901 in Portland are among 25,000 CWA members across much of the Western U.S. who are fighting management's attempt to extract $100 million in wage, health and benefit cuts. Adding insult to injury, the company has further enraged call center workers over its decision to outsource their new high-speed Internet service to the Philippines.

The demands are the latest in a series of attacks since Qwest acquired the US West regional phone company in 2000. In 1998, the CWA won a strike that forced management to roll back mandatory overtime in a given week from 16 to eight hours. Now management wants to bring back workweeks with 16 hours of overtime.

Then, there were 34,400 CWA members at the company--27 percent more than today. Two years later, Qwest, a high-flying long-distance telecom startup using Internet technology, bought out US West. When the technology bubble burst in 2000, Qwest began slashing jobs. Since then, former CEO Joseph Nacchio and other executives have been charged with fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission for fixing the company's books.

At the Portland call center rally, Madelyn Elder, a CWA spokesperson, agitated the crowd by citing the criminal behavior of former CEO Nacchio as an illustration of management's insatiable greed and casual disregard for the livelihoods of its workers. Elder blamed Nacchio for precipitating a 98 percent collapse in the company's stock price, while still retiring with a generous severance package that included full health care coverage.

A new management--supposedly union-friendly--headed by current CEO Richard Notebaert took over in 2002, but the jobs cuts continued.

CWA leaders agreed to extend the old contract twice during Qwest's financial crisis and accepted a wage freeze for the past two years. The current talks are the first full-scale negotiations with management since 1998.

Now Notebaert, having failed to boost Qwest's fortunes in a failed attempt to purchase MCI, is out to squeeze workers harder than ever. He aims to force workers to begin paying for health care premiums for the first time--costs that could easily eat up most or all of the 3 percent annual raises. Notebaert also wants to push new hires into a 401(k)-type retirement plan, rather the defined-pension benefits that workers currently receive.

Those demands led to a fighting mood on the Portland picket line. "Most people have been working here for five years or less," the CWA's Elder told Socialist Worker. "They've never been on strike. They are so pissed off and ready to go. They're pretty militant."

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