CWA cites 'absolute victory' But Bell Atlantic says it gained, too

January 23, 1996|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The Communications Workers of America claimed an "absolute victory" yesterday as the union disclosed details of a -- hard-won agreement with Bell Atlantic Corp. on all but local issues.

But, although the company apparently backed down on some critical concessions it desperately wanted, it apparently got the one it said it needed most.

The tentative agreement on "common issues" came 5 1/2 months after the expiration of a contract covering about 34,400 CWA members in Bell Atlantic's region, including about 8,000 in Maryland. Bell Atlantic is the last of the seven regional Bell companies to come to an agreement with the CWA in the current round of bargaining.

Barbara Lephardt, the union's bargaining committee chairwoman, said the contract that the CWA finally won was better than those at the other regional Bells in some respects.

"In my opinion, it's a very good agreement and an absolute victory for the union," she said. "We went in with employment security as our No. 1 goal and we reached over 90 percent of our employment-security goals."

Company spokesman Eric Rabe said Bell Atlantic gained much-needed flexibility in the three-year agreement. "It's a win for both sides, and ultimately that's where you hope to get in the negotiation process," he said.

If the market saw the agreement as a company win, its applause was restrained. Bell Atlantic stock dropped $1.125, to $68.

Under the tentative agreement, CWA members will receive a10.6 percent pay raise over three years, an amount that falls within the pattern set at the other regional Bells. The union also claimed significant advances in pension and medical benefits.

The union also forced the company to back off its insistence on requiring retirees to pay a portion of their health benefit costs. The company agreed that there would be no cost-sharing before 2002 and won no guarantees that union retirees would start kicking in then.

The acrimonious negotiations took place against the backdrop of an unprecedented barrage of union-sponsored advertising that

the CWA employed in place of the traditional, but increasingly ineffective, strike weapon.

The union campaign introduced the region's television viewers and radio listeners to a memorable character named "Larry," a sweetly incompetent, refrigerator-raiding, fresh-from-Dogpatch outside contractor who represented the supposed perils of entrusting repairs to non-Bell Atlantic employees.

In the end, the joke seems to have proven mightier than the picket sign. Both the union and the company agreed that CWA won some of the strongest contract language in the industry to protect union members against losing jobs to the Larrys of the world. In particular, the use of contractors to build the company's "broadband" network of the future will be phased out.

As CWA President MortonBahr told a press conference yesterday, "Larry is now fired."

Under the agreement, employees of the Bell Atlantic Communications and Construction Services Inc. subsidiary will become CWA members, but will be covered under a separate contract with wages about 60 percent of those of current technicians.

Company officials said BACCSI employees will perform most of the work at homes -- including the installation of inside wiring for the cable television-like service Bell Atlantic plans to offer in the future. Bell Atlantic had argued it needed the lower wage scale to compete with cable companies and outside contractors, who are free to compete with the phone company for inside telephone installation work.

Mr. Rabe said BACCSI wages would average roughly $12 an hour, compared with approximately $20 an hour for current CWA technicians.

Ms. Lephardt said the union didn't give up anything important in agreeing to the BACCSI provisions. She said that, under previous agreements, the company already had the right to hire BACCSI workers in the old Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. states at a lower scale.

Under this agreement, the CWA is guaranteed that BACCSI employees will be represented by the union and that they don't )) pose a threat to current employees' jobs, she said.

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