Phone strike talks proceed 73,000 Bell Atlantic workers walk out

some delays in service

Pickets out in Hunt Valley

August 10, 1998|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Baltimore-area Bell Atlantic workers displayed picket signs yesterday morning, saying they were striking for better benefits and job security while discussions between employees and management continued.

Hours after about 73,000 employees represented by the Communications Workers of America went on strike at 12: 01 a.m., a handful of pickets walked the lines in three-hour shifts at three entrances to the company's Hunt Valley offices. They said the morning had been peaceful. Two Bell Atlantic supervisors who were monitoring the pickets from the parking lot agreed.

Bell Atlantic officials said callers experienced delays at times in reaching directory assistance operators yesterday. Company spokesman David Frail said more than 23,000 management employees were working strike assignments in 12-hour shifts to minimize service disruptions to customers from Maine to Virginia.

"We're still talking," Frail said yesterday. "The company has a comprehensive and, we think, reasonable and fair offer on the table that addresses every issue that has been expressed to us by the union."

CWA spokeswoman Candice Johnson said "informal talks"between the union and Bell Atlantic took place yesterday in Washington and New York. "It's positive that we are meeting and working through these issues," she said. "It's a big job putting together all the elements of this."

CWA represents 7,642 Bell Atlantic employees in Maryland, company officials said. Several of those on the Hunt Valley picket lines were longtime Bell Atlantic workers who said they feared proposed changes in their retirement benefits.

Ron Byrd, a 20-year employee who works as a technician maintaining automated systems, makes the 52-mile drive each day from his home in Silver Spring to the Hunt Valley offices on Shawan Road. He made it again yesterday to walk the picket line.

Byrd, 45, said that he has been trying since 1990 to transfer to a Bell Atlantic office near his home but that the company has refused. That -- along with company policies on benefits, "forced overtime" for some fellow workers and the increased use of nonunion workers -- has angered him.

"The company fights you every year and wants to take back benefits. Yeah, it makes you angry," Byrd said.

Three years ago, employees worked without a contract for about six months beyond the August expiration date until an agreement was reached.

The consensus this time: not again.

"We'll stay the duration," said Eleanor McCullough, chief steward for Baltimore-based Local 2101. "Can't afford not to."

Ed Cramer, 48, an engineering assistant who has been with Bell Atlantic for 28 years, was upset about a system in which he said sick leave approved by personal doctors was disallowed by the company.

"We've got bargained-for benefits, and then we're chastised for using them," the Catonsville resident said.

Bell Atlantic has been tight-lipped about its proposals to the union. But company spokeswoman Sandra Arnette said Bell Atlantic had offered "what we felt was a fair and comprehensive settlement package that would have offered them a significant increase in their wages and benefits. We had offered to expand union jobs throughout the country."

Bell Atlantic provides telecommunications, wireless communications, cable and digital TV, and Internet and data services to more than 27 million customers in 13 states and Washington, D.C.

Pub Date: 8/10/98

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