Leader Blues

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

TOP STORY >>Phone workers protest

Leader staff writer

CenturyTel employees from Jacksonville and other cities gathered en masse Saturday morning to protest what they say is an attempt by management to initiate action that could potentially prevent them from keeping their jobs.

CenturyTel workers, represented by Communication Workers of America Local 6171, have been in bargaining stages over a new contract since July. They want improvements in the contract’s language on seniority, job-bidding procedure and work- force adjustment.

“They want to promote by qualifications,” Alan Whitaker, president of CWA Local 6171, said, adding management “could make a subjective decision based on whatever they want to,” in promoting, hiring and firing employees if the contract were approved as is.

The phone company’s employees have been working without a contract since it expired in August. They include installer repair and facility technicians. In total, 160 CenturyTel employees would be covered by the contract now being negotiated. Of those, 129 are union members.

Long-term employees say they need protection to ensure that in case of layoffs, they would keep their jobs.

Union members who gathered in front of the Jacksonville Shopping Center to protest the company’s recent contract offer said they feel if the contract were approved as is, without seniority protection, their jobs would be threatened.

Many, who worked for CenturyTel when it was GTE, felt obligated to rally.

Some said they have worked for the phone company for more than thirty years.

They did not want to be quoted for the article out of fear of potential management reprisal.

Without seniority protection, the union says Centurytel management would favor new employees over ones who have been on staff longer.

“There’s a possibility that a new hire could come in and in two weeks management decides a 30-year employee gets laid off and a two-week employee stays,” Whitaker said.

Whitaker added that the union movement is based in the need for seniority and working-conditions protection.

Union members say that if management does away with seniority protection language in the contract, then they could get rid of the union because the longest-term employees have the strongest connections to the union.

Whitaker said unions have difficulty staying organized in Arkansas because it allows employees to work if they choose not to join a union.

Many steelworkers, autoworkers and communication workers in Arkansas are union members.

The contract that CenturyTel has rejected was passed “overwhelmingly” by the local’s members in August, according to Whitaker.

The local includes employees in Jacksonville, Pocahontas and Stuttgart. Whitaker traveled from Krum, Texas, to support the protesters.

Other union members from Irving and Grapevine, Texas, also came to the protest. The union says its intention to protect long-term employees is not an economic issue.

“Our intent is to bargain a fair agreement for employees, not to bankrupt the union,” Whitaker said. He said there is no financial impact on the company by protecting long-term employees’ jobs.

Jerrell Miller, a member of CWA’s national staff, is negotiating the contract with CenturyTel on behalf of the employees. He said contract negotiations are not usually as lengthy as the current bargaining.

This is the first time CenturyTel has refused to insert seniority protection language in a contract with Local 6171.

Miller said larger phone companies such as Verizon and AT&T have seniority language in their employee contracts.

CenturyTel spokesman Jeff Jones said that he would not discuss the contract negotiations publicly.