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Science & technology

Unwired Detroit?

Union claims Ameritech provides better phone service to the suburbs.

Gary Culver stands next to a cross box in southwest Detroit. Technicians call such boxes chronic problems in Detroit.
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Published 11/18/1998

Ameritech Corporation is focusing work on suburban communities while neglecting Detroit, according to the president of the Communications Workers of America local that covers Detroit and several suburbs.

The claim is based on internal company records obtained by Ameritech repair technicians and reviewed by CWA Local 4100 President Doug Jager and members of an African-American employees group suing Ameritech for alleged discrimination.

The information, Jager said, shows that communities much smaller than Detroit are having old lines replaced at a rate much faster than that of the area's largest city.

Records indicate 10 communities -- including Southfield, Royal Oak, Livonia and Northville with a total population of about 550,000 residents -- had 4,380 old lines upgraded in 1997.

In Ann Arbor alone, which has nearly 105,600 residents, about 800 lines were replaced in 1997. By comparison Detroit, with a population of about 1 million, had 753 aging lines replaced over a two-year period.

"When I first saw these figures, it was a surprise," said Jager, whose local includes about 1,400 members working in Detroit, Lincoln Park, Dearborn and Redford. "I did not think the disparity was that much. It reflects a lack of commitment to the city of Detroit."

Ameritech spokeswoman Karen Sanborn would neither confirm nor deny the allegations, saying that replacement rates are confidential and could put the company at a competitive disadvantage if disclosed. However, she insisted Detroit customers were receiving equal treatment.

"We don't treat customers any different because of where they are," she said. "We don't treat customers any different whether they are in Detroit or Livonia; they are all important."

"The lines in Detroit are state of the art," added Sanborn. "We spend as much, if not more, in Detroit. We are replacing where it needs to be replaced."

Union officials and Ameritech service technicians disagree, saying that aging Detroit lines -- some of which they said date back 80 years -- are frequently repaired rather than replaced.

Jager said this causes some Detroit customers' service to go out when it rains because many older phone lines are made of lead, which cracks when weather changes and fills with water, causing service to be disrupted.

"Instead of spending money to repair them because they are getting old, they should spend money to replace them," said Jager.

The information was provided by a company employee to Ameritech African-American Employees for Equality, which shared it with CWA officials. The group was formed earlier this year and filed a class action lawsuit against the telecommunications giant in July for allegedly discriminating against workers because of their race. The suit also alleges that Ameritech wrongly suspended employees injured on the job.

CWA Local 4100 is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit. Company officials have denied the claims in the suit.

The African-American employees group said it is going public because the information reflects the attitude the company has for minorities in general -- both employees and customers.

"You would expect more service in Detroit because it's a bigger area," said Gary Culver, an Ameritech telephone repair technician who has worked in Detroit 10 years. "You have customers complaining constantly that their service is going in and out. The city of Detroit obviously has been redlined."

"It reinforces what I always thought," adds Jonathan Brown, another Ameritech repair technician. He has worked in Detroit 11 years. "There is a disparity in service in the city and the suburbs."

Sanborn disputes the allegation. "We do not focus dollars geographically," she said.

Wayne Johnson, who has worked on Detroit phone lines 21 years, said the disparity between Detroit and the suburbs is obvious to those working in the field.

"If something happens in Royal Oak they take care of it right away," he said. "But in Detroit they say do what you can to patch it up."

Technicians say that cross boxes -- which connect underground lines to those going to customer homes and businesses -- are a chronic problem in Detroit.

On an hourlong tour, technician Wayne Johnson pointed out several cross boxes without protective metal covers. Instead, they were covered with canvas tarps, which are supposed to be temporary but in some cases have been in place for years, he said. As a result, wires become corroded from snow and rain, causing frequent service disruptions, said Johnson.

He said there are scores of these poorly protected cross boxes in Detroit.

When asked about the deteriorated Ameritech equipment, Sanborn gave assurances that the company will repair boxes if told of their location.

"If it is affecting customer service, we need to fix it," she said.

Johnson said that Ameritech already has this information. He explains that when technicians are unable to repair phone lines and cross boxes, they provide the location to Ameritech management. But Johnson said he and other repair technicians agreed to provide this information again. They already have a list of 50 locations and intend to add more before providing it to Ameritech.

Wide Disparity

The summary of phone line replacements reviewed by Communication Workers of America officials combined replacements in Detroit for 1996 and 1997 and approximated those in other communities for 1997 alone. Ameritech officials declined to comment on the numbers.

City

1996 and 1997 replacements combined

Population*

Detroit

753

1,027, 974

City

Approximate 1997 replacements

Population

Ann Arbor

800

109,592

Birmingham

280

19,997

Farmington

320

10,132

Livonia

550

100,850

Mt. Clemens

375

18,405

Northville

335

6,226

Pontiac

550

71,166

Royal Oak

365

65,410

Southfield

385

75,728

Troy

440

72884

* All populations from 1990 census.

Source: Numbers were compiled from company statistics by a CWA activist and reviewed by union officials.

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