Now, the reasons are becoming clearer as two federal agencies continue to investigate allegations of union corruption and management favoritism that have mushroomed in the wake of the dismissals.
After they were let go, Smith and Seagraves filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, asserting that they were dismissed on false allegations of fraud that were trumped up by their own union officers and company management.
The two charged that officers of their union, Local 1269 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, had formed a cozy alliance with U S West Direct management.
Union officials, the women charged, were using the relationship to have rank and file members--especially women--fired or demoted so that elected union officers could corner the most lucrative advertising accounts and beef up their own bonuses (A Union Made In Hell," April 7, 1993).
Late last month, a federal agency agreed with some of the allegations made by Smith and Seagraves.
The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs--which enforces antidiscrimination laws at companies doing business with the federal government--concluded that U S West Direct has violated federal law by harassing women employees like Smith and Seagraves.
The OFCCP found that U S West Direct broke the law by "allowing a hostile environment of sexual harassment to exist in its Phoenix sales department and by terminating [Smith and Seagraves] because they are women."
During its investigation, the OFCCP found that the manager to whom Seagraves reported--who is also a woman--"constantly found fault with the work performed by the women on her crew, acted maliciously toward women and openly favored men."
The agency found that Seagraves was fired for paperwork mistakes that were not her responsibility.
Charges of fraud that led to Smith's firing, the OFCCP findings say, were brought to company management's attention by a union official. The agency's investigation also showed that Smith, too, was fired for errors that were not her fault.
According to Smith, the OFCCP is insisting that U S West Direct give Smith and Seagraves their jobs back, and make good on the pay they have lost in the meantime. OFCCP District Director Jospeh Franco did not return a telephone call for comment.
Smith, who has worked only part time in furniture sales since losing her $100,000-plus-a-year job, has steadfastly maintained that she will not settle with the company unless it gives her back her job and the pay she has lost.
Seagraves has since become a Maricopa County sheriff's deputy. The irony is not lost on her that she was fired for supposed fraud, but passed a background check and lie-detector test to make it into the sheriff's department.
U S West officials reportedly have been adamant that they do not want Smith and Seagraves back on their payroll. Company officials met with the OFCCP last week, but the two sides were unable to agree on what steps the company should take in response to the findings.
"We believe that the findings are without merit, but we are continuing to seek a resolution, so we'll continue to talk with the OFCCP," says U S West Direct spokeswoman Carolyne Kennedy.
Satisfying the OFCCP, however, is just the first federal regulatory hurdle that the company and the IBEW face.
The National Labor Relations Board is continuing its massive investigation of the company and the union, and is now preparing to take both to trial in September on myriad charges.
Other employees besides Smith and Seagraves have come forward to join in their allegations of improper union and company behavior, and the result has been one of the largest investigations ever undertaken by the Phoenix NLRB office.
In its complaint, the NLRB contends that IBEW Local 1269 "by its officers, agents and representatives has engaged in a course and conduct of activities to secure special and more favorable terms and conditions of employment, awards and privileges from [U S West Direct] for its officers, agents and representatives and to deny similiar benefits to other bargaining unit employees for self-serving reasons."
Union leaders, specifically ranking local union official Karen Ortega and IBEW business agent Peter Pusateri, have steadfastly denied the charges, although they will not discuss them in detail.
Smith and Seagraves believe that they were fired as a result of the union's desire to wield power and run off successful salespeople who challenged union officers for top sales positions.
According to Bob Jackson, acting regional director for the NLRB in Phoenix, the discrimination finding by the OFCCP will not derail his office's investigation, and possible trial, of U S West Direct and the IBEW.
If the OFCCP does force U S West Direct to give Smith and Seagraves their jobs back, Jackson says, it should make the NLRB's job easier.
"That would leave one less obstacle to settling our case," he says. "[Resinstatement] appears to be a major obstacle right now."
The NLRB prefers to settle cases rather than conduct lengthy and expensive trials, Jackson says, and is still trying to negotiate with U S West Direct and the union.