Labor will be on the defensive Tuesday as negotiators for Bell Atlantic Corp. and the Communications Workers of America open talks on a contract covering 37,000 telephone company workers in the mid-Atlantic region.
With its once-cushy monopoly threatened by impending competition, the Philadelphia-based phone company will be seeking concessions that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.
Job security, wages and retiree health benefits head the list of contentious issues that will face the bargainers as they try to hammer out an agreement by the Aug. 5 contract expiration date.
They face a daunting task. After years of layoffs, relations between the company and its largest union may be at their lowest ebb since Bell Atlantic was born in 1984 out of the breakup of the old Bell System. CWA officials say the company is seeking concessions that could lower the wage scale for employees in a new subsidiary by as much as 40 percent.
"I've never seen it this bad -- ever, ever, ever. This is not business as usual," said Charles Gerhardt, executive vice president of CWA Local 2100 in Baltimore.
During the three years since the last contract was negotiated, civility has been frayed by the company's determination to change its culture from that of a paternalistic telephone monopoly to an efficient, entrepreneurial competitor in all forms of electronic communication. But while Bell Atlantic sees this process as getting lean, union officials see it as turning mean.
"The employees don't count to them. The community doesn't count to them. Nothing counts except the almighty dollar," said Vince Maisano, the CWA's District 13 vice president and its chief spokesman during the contract talks.
Al Koeppe, president and chief executive of Bell Atlantic-New Jersey, took a conciliatory tone but staked out a tough line on the company's demands for concessions. "The fundamental premise or theme in my head for bargaining is that we as a company have to come out of this bargaining with a more competitive company," he said. "If we don't come out of it with a more competitive company and a strong alignment as a team, I worry about where we're going."
The CWA, which represents about 10,000 Bell Atlantic employees in Maryland, will come to the bargaining table with a weakened hand.
Last month, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers arrived at a contract agreement covering the 9,500 Bell Atlantic employees it represents in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The CWA, which had bargained jointly with the IBEW in 1992, denounced the agreement as "subpar" and urged IBEW members to repudiate their leaders and reject the contract.
Jim Demgard, president of IBEW Local 827, dismissed CWA criticisms of the contract he negotiated. "It was a very good agreement for our members and a fair agreement for Bell Atlantic," he said Friday, hours after a count showed the contract had been ratified by a 5-1 margin.
Mr. Maisano said the IBEW contract would not soften the CWA's stance. "If the company believes we're going to accept what the IBEW agreed to, it's going to be very difficult bargaining," he said.
In fact, that's exactly what the company does expect. Mr. Koeppe said Bell Atlantic will be seeking terms from the CWA similar to what it received from the IBEW.
Mr. Koeppe said the key concession Bell Atlantic won from the IBEW was an agreement to allow it to set up a subsidiary with a lower wage scale to build and maintain the last stretch of its network -- that is, from the telephone pole or neighborhood connection point into the home.
Under agreement with IBEW Local 827 in New Jersey, employees of the newly created Bell Atlantic Communications and Construction Services Inc. (BACCSI) would be paid about 60 percent the scale earned by current network workers -- about $12 an hour, compared with $20.
In return, IBEW members were given job security guarantees for the five-year life of the contract, Mr. Koeppe said. The rest of the network would remain under the jurisdiction of the existing union bargaining units.
That deal is critical for Bell Atlantic because it plans to deploy an entirely new "broadband" fiber-optic network capable of carrying video and data as well as voice.
Other issues are no less inflammatory. If it follows the IBEW contract pattern, Bell Atlantic will be proposing that retirees pay part of their pensions for health care coverage -- a notion that CWA officials have vowed to fight.
That very issue, retirees paying toward health care, was kept out of a tentative contract reached Friday with AT&T by both the CWA and IBEW. It provides for a 10.8 percent wage increase over three years, with bonuses. But, as with other regional groups, Bell Atlantic's bargaining is not expected to be influenced as much by AT&T's settlement as in the past.
The CWA has denounced Bell Atlantic's 14.5 percent wage increase over five years won by the IBEW as inadequate and deceptive.
Both Mr. Koeppe and Mr. Maisano said they hoped to avert a strike, which could disrupt operations.
"If there's a strike your enemies profit," Mr. Koeppe said. "There's no question our competitors would love to have a strike."