CWA, Occupy, and local residents join together to fight corporate greed in Little Rock

Members of the Communication Workers of America, Occupy Little Rock, and a local group fighting to preserve their neighborhoods recently joined forces to protest corporate greed.

On the morning of May 9, about 75 CWA members protested outside the annual shareholders meeting of Windstream Communications, which in 2010 unilaterally reduced, and, in some cases, eliminated health care benefits for Windstream retirees. Protestors carried signs reading “Retirees  Got the Shaft” and “Restore Retiree Healthcare.”

After that demonstration, CWA members joined Occupy Little Rock and a group of local residents in danger of losing their homes because of a Chamber of Commerce sponsored plan to raze their neighborhoods and replace them with a technology business center.

Inside the Windstream shareholder meeting, CWA Local 6171 President Dick Frierson criticized the company for breaking  a promise to provide health care coverage to retirees who had helped build the company.

Back in 2010, Windstream, which was formerly a part of GTE, a company that provided telephone service primarily to rural and mid-sized cities in the Southwest and West, notified retirees that it was unilaterally raising health care premiums for some retirees and eliminating it altogether for others

Windstream took the action despite a memorandum of understanding it negotiated with CWA, which represents 1,300 Windstream workers and 3,000 retirees, promising to protect retiree health care benefits.

The premium increases were steep. According to the Carlsbad, New Mexico Current-Argus, health premiums for Tibursio “Butch” Villegas, a 62-year old resident of Carlsbad, increased from $126 a month to cover himself and his wife to $1,189 a month. Villegas’ new premium payment was nearly as much as his Windstream pension.

“We were assured that if we worked past 30 years, the company would pay 90 percent of the health insurance premium,” said Jimmy Funk, who retired in 1999, to the Current-Argus.

To make matters worse, Windstream sent a survey to retirees asking if they objected to the premium increases. It sued those who responded “yes.”

“Losing coverage was bad enough, but I (was) stunned that we (were) being sued. It was adding insult to injury,” said Johnny Lee, a Windstream retiree whose health care premium to cover himself and his wife nearly equaled his $1,200 a month pension.

A US District Judge sided with Windstream, ruling that the company could unilaterally raise retiree health care premiums.

While Windstream, which is gradually converting itself from an exclusively land line company to one that provides landline and broadband service, was divesting itself of its promise to provide retiree health care, it was spending money to buy potential competitors and other companies that would help increase its market share.

In 2010 it purchased Nu Vox, Inc., Iowa Telecom, Kentucky Data Link, Inc., and Hosted Solutions. Before the acquisition’s, the company had a presence in 29 states. Windstream’s 2011 annual report said that as a result of the acquisitions the company had expanded its presence to 48 states.

While it was buying these companies, it was also receiving federal subsidies totaling $181 million to expand broadband services. In its 2010 Annual Report, CEO Jeffery Gardner said that the capital investment made possible by the subsidies would “qualify for 100 percent depreciation under federal tax law.”

Windstream’s corporate decision disrupted the lives of thousands of its retirees. Residents of Little Rock’s Forest Hill and Fair Park neighborhoods are facing similar disruptions.

The Little Rock Technology Park Authority is considering tearing down the neighborhoods so that it can build a technology business center. Residents of these neighborhoods are mostly low-income minority working or retired people.

The Technology Park Authority, a public agency created and controlled by the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, is seeking a site where it can build facilities to serve technology companies that grow out of research at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the University of Arkansas Medical Center or provide technology services to these public institutions.

Residents of the threatened neighborhoods formed We Shall Not Be Moved to protect their homes and neighborhoods.

A statement issued by We Shall Not Be Moved called the proposed demolition of working people’s homes in the inner city, “inhumane” because it will “displace and dispossess hundreds citizen homeowners. . . against their will.

In a statement, CWA said that it was supporting the residents effort to save their homes because it was another attempt by working people “to stop the attack on the American Dream.”