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The Ultimate Hang-Up for Phone Workers : Sprint shows how to keep a union out by eliminating the office where employees dared to complain.

August 29, 1995|ANNA HAMILTON PHELAN | Anna Hamilton Phelan is a screenwriter ("Mask," "Gorillas in the Mist") and a member of the Writers Guild of America, West

Ana Hernandez immigrated legally to the United States from El Salvador, seeking the opportunity to make a decent living. She got a telemarketing job at a Sprint Corp. subsidiary in San Francisco called La Conexion Familiar (the Family Connection), selling long-distance service to the Spanish-speaking community, a lucrative sector of the industry.

Sprint, one of the major long-distance providers, has apparently not learned the simple lesson that to maximize productivity, you must treat employees with dignity, ensure a good wage and guarantee a clean and safe working environment.

Instead, Sprint subjected its Latina workers to a climate of tension and intimidation. The women were limited to two bathroom breaks per day. To assist the enforcement of this "regulation," management monitored the amount of water the workers could drink during their shifts.

Hernandez and many of her colleagues turned to the Communications Workers of America, a major labor union, for help in securing better working conditions.

A vote on joining the union was scheduled. Just one week before the election, Sprint closed the office, laying off all 235 workers. None had been given any notice of their pending unemployment. Most found out by hearing an announcement over the loudspeaker the same day that the office closed.

The union obtained a copy of Sprint's "Union-Free Management Guide," which revealed an aggressive anti-union policy. The handbook detailed methods to undermine efforts by employees to organize.

The communications workers union filed suit last summer on behalf of the Sprint employees. The National Labor Relations Board has charged that Sprint violated at least 50 fair-labor practices. (The Sprint vice president for labor relations admitted falsifying documents to mislead NLRB investigators.) A ruling on the case by a U.S. administrative law judge is expected soon.

But even a pro-union decision would not heal all the wounds. Sprint and its former workers experienced vastly different fortunes in the past year. While Sprint's profits continued to rise, for Hernandez and the other workers, it has been a year of depression, unemployment and for many, the humiliation of public assistance.

CWA is ringing an alarm bell. The union warns that Sprint is just the beginning of a new employment landscape for Americans that seems more akin to the time of Dickens than to the turn of the 21st Century. Legislation proposed by Republicans in Congress would dismantle the minimum wage, end the eight-hour day and weaken agencies that protect workers like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

We are looking at a future that appears more and more like the darkest days of the past: a nation divided into the very rich and the very poor, where there is an ever-widening and pernicious chasm between those who have and those who have not. The lowering of the living standards of Americans by the proliferation of non-union jobs with low wages and little protections augurs ill for our nation. Rather than helping to raise the living standards of much-exploited workers in the Third World, we are re-creating the Third World for large segments of our workers here.

Mexico has called for ministerial consultations with the U.S. government about Sprint's egregious practices as a violation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, but Washington is dragging its feet. Sprint is the second-largest federal government telecommunications contractor and is the long-distance carrier for the Labor Department.

Unless the public becomes more vocal about the way that companies like Sprint deal with their employees, this kind of callous treatment of workers will become the norm. Ana Hernandez and her fellow workers take their places in a disturbing portrait of America's future.

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