Health care, disability benefits at heart of Sprint strike in Ocala
Mark Piotrowski
November/December 2005

On November 4, several members of the Alachua County Labor Party and the North Central Florida Central Labor Council went to Ocala to join striking Sprint telephone company workers. We joined members in leafleting customers at the Sprint Store in the Paddock Mall and encouraging people to support the striking workers by switching from Sprint to Cingular (for wireless, 1-866-CINGULAR to switch) or AT&T (for long distance, 1-800-222-0300), both of which are unionized. The AFL-CIO has also encouraged its members to make the switch.

The workers were in good spirits and gave us a quick crash course about the strike.

More than 240 members of the Ocala-based Communication Workers of America (CWA) Local 3176 went on strike last month against Sprint-Nextel. CWA 3176 had been working without a contract since March 31, 2005 and was one of 4 locals to strike on October 10—joining CWA Locals 3672 (Hickory, NC), 3871 (Bluff City, TN) and 4700 (Evansville, IN). In all more than 1,000 CWA members walked off the job last month and four more locals in North Carolina, representing 1,200 more workers, voted to join the strike if a fair contract can't be reached.

Like on so many bargaining tables all across the country, health care, pay and benefit cuts are at the heart of the CWA strike. Sprint is proposing shifting all health insurance costs to its workers, slashing disability leave, doing away with overtime pay for Sunday work (instead of the current time-and-a-half), and converting all sick leave to paid-time-off.

CWA 3176 President Bob Campbell spoke to the delegates of the North Central Florida Central Labor Council (CLC) on October 17 about the then-week old stirke. He explained that over the last 5 years Sprint used $8.7 billion in profits generated from its local phone service to build a nationwide wireless network. Having built up this network and then merging with Nextel, Sprint now plans to sell off its local phone division, leaving the workers and the mostly rural communities they serve in the lurch.

But first, to make the local division more "attractive" to a potential buyer, Sprint is trying to railroad through millions of dollars worth of contract concessions from its local phone employees—the very people who worked so hard to provide the soon-to-be-sold-off quality local service.

There were four CWA members at the Sprint Store that afternoon, having already completed their morning pickets at Sprint headquarters: Billy Weakland has worked in the Facilities group for 18 years and serves as a unit Vice President for CWA Local 3176; Greg Smith has worked for Sprint for 20 years as a Business Technician; Jack Varner, a 17 year Sprint veteran, works as a DSL installer; and Mark Box has worked for Sprint for "34 years and 2 months" as a cable splitter. They pointed out that put together the 240-plus striking workers represented three and a half centuries worth of experience at Sprint.

Varner is one of only 4 DSL installers for Sprint in the Ocala area but proudly said that 3 out of the 4 of them joined the strike. He explained that he's been in and out of the union over his 17 years at Sprint but that when he heard about what was going on after getting back from a vacation, he quickly joined back up. It was an easy choice he said, "This is about corporate greed, plain and simple."

Unsurprisingly, health care costs came up again and again in talking with the strikers. Box explained that the premium increases Sprint was proposing would mean that to cover his four family members would be more than $2,000 a month. "I was told when I was 19 [and had just started working at Sprint] to keep my nose clean and I'd be taken care of. Well we're being taken care of all right." Box, who is a few years away from retirement, was disgusted with Sprint's greed. "When I have to tell my 15 year-old daughter that she can't go to ballet because I'm on strike, I get pissed."

At one ponint Weakland ended up talking for 15 minutes to someone that had driven up. Afterwards he explained to us that she was a Sprint customer that had requested service be set up a month ago and still had not received it. Usually the phone company has 3 days to establish service but during the begining of a strike or lockout the Public Service Commission (PSC, the group that oversees public utilites in Florida) expands that window to 2 weeks. The woman said that each time she called Sprint they blamed the delays on the CWA workers being on strike. "I was tired of being told it was because of the strike so I decided to come down here and find out what's really going on," she told Weakland. She left saying she'd contact Sprint to tell them she was supporting the striking workers.

While support from the public has been strong, there's been pretty weak media coverage by the Ocala Star Banner. Weakland related an all too familiar case study in how the media covers unions. When E One, an Ocala-based manufacturing facility that makes emergency vehicles, defeated a union drive and fired many of the organizers last year it was front page news. But CWA 3176 has had to struggle just to get a story about 240 local workers going on strike, in some cases going so far to having to take out ads in the paper just to get the word out.

CWA succeeded in getting Sprint back to the bargaining table early in the strike but the corporate giant continued to insist on major concessions from the union. As The Iguana goes to press another bargaining session had just been added. CWA Vice President Weakland said the workers were hopeful of making some real progess in negotiations. "I think the company's realizing we're not backing down," he said by phone.

CWA 3176 members have been invited to speak at this year's Central Labor Council Holiday Dinner (Monday, December 12, 6:30 pm at CWA Local 3105 Hall). Please come out and show your support. In addition to switching their phone service, supporters are also encouraged to contact Sprint CEO Gary Forsee ( and tell him to agree to a fair contract for Sprint workers.

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