After two months of exchanging long-distance insults, Bell Atlantic Corp. and the Communications Workers of America got back to bargaining yesterday as the company presented the union with a proposal it called its "breakthrough offer."
Union spokesmen disagreed with the description, but said it was enough of an improvement on past offers to get the talks going.
"There's no need to pop the champagne at this point, but the fact we're at the table is progress," said Doug Thompson, spokesman for the union bargaining team.
Until now, progress had been absent from the contentious talks. Bell Atlantic's 37,000 CWA members have been working without a contract for nearly four months, and there had been no face-to-face negotiations since Sept. 25.
Instead of striking, the union has battered the company for months with a sophisticated advertising campaign, accusing it of heartless treatment of its unionized "associates" and retirees. Company officials have denounced the ads as misleading, but the ads have clearly taken a toll on the organization's morale.
"Even the associates would like to have it behind them," Bell Atlantic Vice Chairman Lawrence T. Babbio Jr. said yesterday. "People don't like to exist in this area of uncertainty."
Mr. Babbio, considered a leading candidate to replace Chairman Raymond W. Smith, said yesterday that the company's fifth comprehensive proposal to the union is "a very serious offer" and good-faith effort on our part."
The new proposal improves the company's wage offer to a 10.8 percent raise over three years and increases the ratification bonus from $1,000 to $1,500. Mr. Babbio also said the offer includes "the best employment security package of any regional Bell company up for bargaining this year."
Bell Atlantic, which has taken a particularly hard line in this year's talks, is the only regional Bell not to have agreed on a contract with CWA negotiators. The CWA represents about 10,000 Bell Atlantic workers in Maryland.
Charles Gerhardt, executive vice president of CWA Baltimore's Local 2100, said the offer was better than earlier offers in the areas of pensions and employee health care, but he said the new proposal does little to address union concerns about the two most contentious issues -- job security and retiree health care.
"It ain't no breakthrough," Mr. Gerhardt said.
Mr. Thompson said the union would offer a counterproposal by today, indicating that talks might be getting on track. But he said the union would not call off its ad campaign.
One hopeful sign is that Bell Atlantic did not present a "take-it-or-leave-it" offer in order to provoke a strike, as some union leaders had feared.
"I never characterize anything as a final offer, but I will tell you that this offer is basically as good as it's going to get," said Mr. Babbio.
9- "That's not take-it-or-leave-it, either."