The Communications Workers of America, the union representing 73,000 Bell Atlantic Corp. workers, said yesterday that its members will not work without a contract if bargaining does not yield an agreement by tomorrow.
If a settlement is near, however, the union said, it might extend the current three-year contract past midnight tomorrow night, when the contract expires.
But there will be no repeat of the contract discussions in 1995, when members worked six months without an agreement, union officials said.
"Three years ago, we felt that Bell Atlantic wanted us to strike, so we didn't. In 1998, we have no intentions of working without a contract," said Jann Buttiglieri, who represents Local 2101 in Baltimore and Local 2108 in Prince George's and Montgomery counties.
"Our workers have said they would rather strike than work without a contract," said Maria Bury, president of Local 2101, which represents 1,600 of the 7,200 Bell Atlantic workers in Maryland. "They did not like it the last time, and they are not willing to do it again."
The union's rank and file and its executive board have authorized the CWA president to call a strike, which could begin at 12: 01 a.m. Sunday.
CWA represents Bell Atlantic workers in Maryland, the District of Columbia, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York and New England.
The telecommunications industry is highly automated, but Bell Atlantic could not operate if 73,000 workers walked out, said Fred Voit, an analyst with the Yankee Group, a market research company in Boston.
"Can the company run without employees? No. Bell Atlantic has these people because it needs them," he said. "Bell Atlantic can't afford not to serve their customers properly.
"They could hold out for a couple of days, even a couple of weeks, but the lack of manpower will hurt them," Voit said. "And if the union members go on strike, the company will lose business to their competitors -- maybe permanently -- and then there will be less work to go around when the strike ends."
Analysts and union leaders said they are surprised that the negotiations have dragged on.
CWA and Bell Atlantic began bargaining in October at the request of the company, in an effort to put the issue to rest early.
The union has signed contracts with AT&T Corp. and other telecommunications companies.
Previous contracts with those companies were scheduled to expire tomorrow, but the companies began bargaining early.
That puts Bell Atlantic at a disadvantage, union officials said.
"We believe there's no reason right now that we do not have a contract. We believe Bell Atlantic has a lot to lose," Buttiglieri said. "In such a competitive industry, I would think it would be important for the company to maintain a credible reputation."
Yesterday, the CWA said the two sides still had "some serious disagreements."
"We're meeting continuously and will continue to do so as it goes down to the wire," said Candice Johnson, a CWA spokeswoman in Washington.
"We want to reach an agreement, and all of our efforts are focused on that," said Steve Marcus, a Bell Atlantic spokesman in New York, where the company has its headquarters. "We're working hard, and the negotiations are continuing. That's always good."
The main issues include job security and overtime, the union said.
"Our goal is to improve the overall quality of work and family life of our workers," Buttiglieri said. "It's not about money."
The CWA says that in some cases, workers have been asked to work 10 hours a day for six days a week, or 13 days in a row.
The union also is opposed to Bell Atlantic's increased use of nonunion contract workers at some of its new subsidiaries. They typically receive lower pay and no benefits for doing the same work as Bell Atlantic's union employees.
lTC Bell Atlantic officials would not comment on the labor issues.
Bell Atlantic recently announced plans to buy GTE, a telecommunications company, in a stock deal valued at about $52 billion. The companies have said they would save $2 billion and generate $2 billion in additional revenue within three years if they combine.
Two weeks ago, Bell Atlantic announced that its second-quarter profit rose 11 percent to $1.07 billion. The company's shares rose 43.75 cents yesterday to close at $43.3125.
Pub Date: 8/07/98