WASHINGTON -- Branding Bell Atlantic Corp. the "renegade" of the telephone industry, the Communications Workers of America accused the company yesterday of letting its network and customer service deteriorate while diverting profits into "exotic" new investments.
The union made its charges at a news conference as negotiations with Bell Atlantic dragged into their fifth unproductive day since the CWA's three-year contract with the Philadelphia-based company expired. About the only thing the two sides agree on is that progress has been virtually nil.
Dave Pacholczyk, a spokesman for Bell Atlantic, dismissed the union's charges as a bargaining tactic. "What we've got is some headline-seeking rhetoric trying to get us to cave in to unreasonable bargaining demands," he said.
Union officials contend that the company is doing most of the demanding this year, seeking concessions in such areas as health care benefits for retirees and the wage scale of workers who run lines into homes and businesses. The CWA represents about 37,000 Bell Atlantic employees, including an estimated 10,000 in Maryland.
Union officials said Bell Atlantic has been far more confrontational in its approach to the talks than any of the other six regional Bell companies whose contracts were up for renewal this year.
Five of those companies -- Ameritech, Nynex, Pacific Telesis, BellSouth and SBC Communications -- have settled with the CWA in the past week, and union officials said they think they will soon reach agreement with U S West.
CWA officials said Bell Atlantic's wage offer of a 7.5 percent raise over three years fell far below the 10.5 percent to 11 percent raises in the other Bell company contracts.
The CWA's charges of service slippage were part of an effort by the union to exert pressure on Bell Atlantic through means short of a strike.
"We will engage in a sophisticated campaign to change Bell Atlantic's attitude," said Vincent Maisano, a CWA vice president and spokesman for the bargaining committee.
Morton Bahr, the CWA president and an influential figure in Democratic circles, explicitly warned that the regional Bell operating companies could not expect his support for a landmark telecommunications deregulation bill they crave if Bell Atlantic continues to demand large-scale concessions.
"We will not support the RBOC position either in Congress or with the president of the United States if Bell Atlantic doesn't give us a contract comparable to the others," said Mr. Bahr.
Mr. Pacholczyk responded, "He's one man. He's got one vote. They supported the legislation in the past. So what's changed?"
Union officials charged yesterday that one thing that has changed is Bell Atlantic's commitment to its core network business.
They contended that the company has been failing to replace aging copper telephone lines, missing repair commitments and failing to staff service offices well enough to keep up with the volume of calls.
At the same time, Bell Atlantic has been pouring millions of dollars into overseas companies and ventures such as a Hollywood studio, Mr. Maisano said.
The union cited data indicating that Bell Atlantic's repeat trouble ZTC reports -- customer service problems that require a second call -- jumped from 72,129 per quarter in 1992 to an average of 286,872 per quarter in 1994. A Federal Communications Commission official, who asked not to be identified, confirmed that Bell Atlantic had reported a dramatic rise in the number of repeat trouble reports during that period, but he said the figures had been skewed by a change in definition.
Mr. Pacholczyk said the number of repeat trouble reports has declined. "We have a network that works," he said. "We have customers that are happy."