The Grinch who stole the dial tone

CHICAGO – The Grinch who stole Christmas may be making off with your dial tone, according to telephone workers protesting layoffs at a lively demonstration here, Dec. 15. Santa Claus, backed up by 1,000 phone technicians, installers, service reps and their families, confronted the Grinch (aka SBC Ameritech) in front of corporate headquarters.

SBC cut 11,000 jobs nationwide during the Christmas season, including over 600 in Illinois and Northwest Indiana.

SBC Ameritech workers, members of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 21, were furious at the job cuts while their workload increases, outside non-union contractors are hired and customer service declines.

Rick Mobley, a union steward from the Schaumburg, Ill., garage dismissed management’s claims of economic necessity for the layoffs. “They have taken in $3.4 billion in profits while laying off 629 fully qualified technicians,” Mobley said. “There’s plenty of work. People are being laid off because of corporate greed.”

Louise Ebel, a dispatcher from the Cicero, Ill., office was concerned about the speed up resulting from the job elimination. “We can see what’s happening in the field. They’re piling the work on – making one worker do the work of two guys, trying to get us – the dispatchers – to hound them to do more work. They don’t care about safety. And the customer isn’t getting quality service. How can they when they expect every job to be done in less than an hour?”

IBEW Local 21, with 12,500 members, has a rich history of rank-and-file activism. It is a strong supporter of Chicago Jobs with Justice, ongoing organizing campaigns in the telecom industry and has a steward system with 500 on-the-job representatives. It was the initiative of these stewards that gave the impetus for today’s rally, explained steward Ben Alvarez.

“We wanted to protest the layoffs and show solidarity for the laid off brothers and sisters,” Alvarez said. “When the local leadership endorsed the activity it was announced at the stewards’ meeting Wednesday, and by Thursday morning the word was out to all the garages, with people being encouraged to bring their families.” Most of the laid off workers are in their early 20s and supporting young families. Protesters collected a mountain of toys to be distributed to the affected families.

At the rally, Local 21 President-Business Manager Ron Kastner declared that the company’s continued use of hundreds of contract laborers would violate the laid-off workers contractual right to be recalled. He also warned that the massive layoffs would have dire effects on customer service.

“These are front line workers, highly-skilled techs whose job is to install and repair local phone service,” he said, including 27 central office techs, who are responsible for providing dial tone. “Our members are working hard now,” he continued, “but no amount of overtime will replace those 600 skilled techs, especially when winter sets in. This is insane.”

The author can be reached at robertawood@ameritech.net