As Hurricane Felix threatened Bell Atlantic Corp.'s territory with 80-mph winds yesterday, the union that represents the crews that repair damaged telephone lines continued to teeter on the brink of a strike.
A spokesman for the Communications Workers of America, which represents 37,000 Bell Atlantic network maintenance workers and other employees from New Jersey to Virginia, said yesterday that the union has rejected the company's latest offer to replace the contract that expired 12 days ago.
Doug Thompson, a spokesman for CWA District 2, said the union would not alter its bargaining strategy because of the storm -- either to avoid it or take advantage of it.
"They seem to want a strike and obviously we are prepared to do that, but we're going to do it on our terms and not let them back us into it," said Mr. Thompson.
He added that the union's stance could be reconsidered in the event of major outages. "We would probably complete that task before we go out," he said. But he agreed with a Baltimore union official who said CWA members would not feel they had to restore a dial tone to every home before they could strike.
Bell Atlantic spokeswoman Joan Rasmussen said the company was counting on the historic commitment of its employees to respond in emergencies.
"Telephone company employees have always risen to the occasion in the event of an emergency such as a hurricane," said Ms. Rasmussen. "We have every faith in them that, should that become necessary, all of our employees would feel the same way."
The recent deterioration of relations between the CWA and Bell Atlantic is clearly testing that commitment. Of seven regional Bells, the Philadelphia-based company is one of only two that have not settled with the union; Mr. Thompson said an agreement with US West appeared to be "very close."
Bell Atlantic's most recent contract offer, delivered Tuesday, apparently did little to close the breach. Mr. Thompson described it as "an insult" that was "loaded with give-backs."
Bell Atlantic said its third comprehensive offer included an 8.5 percent wage increase over three years.
"This is a fair offer that balances the needs for employment security with the needs of a highly competitive marketplace," said Al Koeppe, Bell Atlantic's chief negotiator.
But Mr. Thompson said Bell Atlantic's 8.5 percent raise not only fell short of the 10.5 percent-to-11 percent negotiated with the other regional Bells, it wasn't even 8.5 percent because $500 a year came in the form of a bonus that didn't raise the wage scale. He estimated its true value at about 6 percent.
Mr. Thompson charged that even without a strike, Bell Atlantic's phone network was not prepared to weather a serious storm because of poor maintenance of the copper wire the company has in the ground.
Ms. Rasmussen denied there was any problem, saying the company had put in 110,000 maintenance hours in the first half of 1995, as many as in all of 1994.
"Maintenance was a problem last year. We identified it this year, and we feel we fixed that," she said.