Bell Atlantic and CWA still battling There's no contract and no meaningful talks, but no strike, either

November 02, 1995|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff

The largest union at Bell Atlantic Corp. is not planning to strike before or during the holiday season, but that doesn't mean there is peace at work or goodwill toward management.

Instead, the Communications Workers of America and the Philadelphia-based telephone company have settled down into the labor relations version of World War I trench warfare.

Three months after the expiration of their contract, about the only thing Bell Atlantic and the CWA agree upon is that no meaningful negotiations are taking place. Each side accuses the other of refusing to bargain in good faith.

"It's just a very protracted and difficult battle here," said Jeff Keefe, a Rutgers University labor relations professor who closely follows the telephone industry. "Neither side is willing to give ground at the present time."

Instead of launching a risky strike, the CWA has kept its 37,000 members at Bell Atlantic on the job, using the time-honored tactic of slowing things down by strictly following the contract and the company's rules.

Meanwhile, the CWA has mounted an expensive advertising campaign against the company. Using everything from radio and newspaper ads to a plane trailing a banner over a Penn State football game, the union has driven home its message that the company is unfair in its treatment of employees and retirees.

Doug Thompson, the CWA's spokesman during the talks, said the CWA is committed to the strategy at least through the end of the year.

"If we strike, it will be after the holidays," said Mr. Thompson, whose union represents 10,000 Bell Atlantic workers in Maryland.

So far, the CWA's strategy hasn't made Bell Atlantic budge. Company spokesman Eric Rabe said it was "nettlesome but it's not significant."

"I don't think it's had much effect. We've been doing research to find out what effect it has and it's minimal," Mr. Rabe said. "Some of their claims are obviously distorted, and people see through them."

While the union's campaign might not be having much effect on customers, most of whom couldn't jump to another phone company if they wanted to, its campaign is clearly taking its toll on Bell Atlantic.

"I don't think there is anyone in the company who enjoys this except perhaps a few union leaders who enjoy the publicity and the pressure they perceive they're putting on the company," said Mr. Rabe.

Perhaps the greatest pressure has been felt by the company's department-level managers -- who have been living with constant tension and the possibility of a strike for months.

"This whole thing is very wearing on management. Most vacations have been canceled," said Mr. Keefe.

The tension at Bell Atlantic is compounded by the fact that it stands alone among the seven regional Bell operating companies in failing to reach a settlement with the CWA.

Unlike the other Bells, which settled for contracts that largely retained the status quo, Bell Atlantic has pressed the union for severe concessions -- including the establishment of a separate subsidiary for some network employees with wages about 60 percent of CWA union scale.

Peter Krasilovsky, senior analyst at Arlen Communications Inc. in Bethesda, said the CWA is not likely to back down and give Bell Atlantic a better deal than the other Bells received.

Mr. Keefe laid the blame for the standoff squarely at the feet of company Chairman Raymond W. Smith. "It's just the leadership -- Ray Smith and some of the people he listens to -- thinks it's time for a showdown with the unions," Mr. Keefe said.

Charles Gerhardt, executive vice president of CWA Local 2100 in Baltimore, said the company could still provoke a strike. He said there have been reports that the company is hiring nonunion workers to perform its work even in advance of a walkout.

"That'll get us off the dime. We'll certainly have to respond to that," he said.

Mr. Rabe wouldn't deny that the company was doing that. He said that with the union work-to-rule campaign cutting into productivity, the company was justified in doing what it takes to get the work done.

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