Bell deal ends strike Union sends 73,000 workers in 13 states back to their jobs

'A landmark settlement'

Telephone company offers concessions on new jobs, overtime

August 12, 1998|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

The Communications Workers of America reached a tentative agreement with Bell Atlantic Corp. yesterday, ending a 2 1/2 -day strike and sending 73,000 employees in 13 states back to work.

CWA President Morton Bahr called the deal a "landmark settlement."

The union said the agreement gives its members greater access jobs in such areas as Internet services, data networking, multimedia communications and other new information services at Bell Atlantic.

The company, the nation's largest local telephone company and Maryland's main provider, also made concessions on mandatory overtime.

"This strike was unusual. It was not triggered by wages, health care and pensions. Those issues were settled weeks ago. It was solely about who would do the jobs of the future," Bahr said in a morning phone conference from Washington.

The union acceded to what it called the "personal requests" of Ivan G. Seidenberg, Bell Atlantic's president and chief executive, by agreeing to reduce the length of the contract from three years to two years and agreeing not to unionize workers in the company's Bell Atlantic Mobile division.

CWA workers have 30 days to ratify the agreement.

"This settlement reaches our goals: It's fair to employees, fair to customers, fair to the companyand is in line with other recent settlements in our industry," Donald Sacco, Bell Atlantic's executive vice president of human resources and labor relations, said in a separate conference.

The deal came after a bargaining marathon that began late Sunday morning. Workers hit the picket lines immediately after the old three-year contract expired at 12: 01 a.m. Sunday. The union instructed them yesterday to return to work for their next regularly scheduled shifts.

The new contract allows a ceiling on overtime, making it voluntary beyond standards for periods other than those when there is a service crisis, Sacco said.

It would permit workers to be required to work up to 10 extra hours per week for seven months of a year and up to 15 extra hours a week for the remaining five months. But workers could not be scheduled to work consecutive six-day weeks. Union members would receive pay increases of 3.8 percent in the first year and 4 percent in the second year.

Company contributions to members' 401(k) retirement plans would rise to 80 percent from 66.67 percent, and other pension benefits would rise by up to 20 percent.

Bell Atlantic also will create 300 jobs in its southern region, which includes Washington, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, and up to 960 jobs in its northern region, which includes Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and New England. It will offer 3,000 temporary workers permanent jobs.

Bell Atlantic agreed to transfer 300 jobs performed by contractors in its Bell Atlantic Plus division in Hampton, Va., to union workers over the next nine months in new technology divisions.

"Key technologies will be done primarily by union-represented employees," but the company will award outside contracts for some telemarketing duties, Sacco said.

Fred Voit, an analyst with the Yankee Group, a market research company in Boston, said the labor dispute ended quickly because stiff competition in the telecommunications industry prompted Bell Atlantic to make concessions.

"I'm sure Bell Atlantic's competitors were dancing in the streets when the strike began," he said. "But now it's over, and it's a wonderful thing for both sides. The union can say it got what it wanted in two days, and the company wasn't on strike long enough to impact service levels and lose customers."

Bell Atlantic's stock closed yesterday at $41.75, up 56.25 cents.

Some analysts said they expect the strike's effect on the stock price to be scant. Initially, there were concerns about a prolonged walkout's effect on Bell Atlantic's pending all-stock purchase of GTE Corp.

"The strike started Sunday, and the price has been pretty stable," said Marjorie Saint-Aime, an analyst with Goldis-Pittsburgh Institutional Services in Long Island, N.Y.

"Considering the strike was for only two days, I don't expect Bell Atlantic's revenue to be affected by much," she said, adding that she expects its stock to hit $50 soon.

The strike will leave some lingering effects. For a time, some of the 23,000 Bell Atlantic managers who were mobilized during the walkout will have to fill in for the phone line installers and technicians, repairmen, operators and customer service representatives they tried to replace, said Sandra Arnette, spokeswoman for Bell Atlantic-Maryland.

"Managers will not be released from strike assignments until we have enough union employees back in their jobs so that customers still don't feel any impact," Arnette said.

The only sign of the strike that was noticeable to customers were delays in directory and operator assistance, and in responses to requests for new lines and repairs. That could continue for a few more days.

"Things haven't totally gone back to normal yet," Arnette said. "The strike is over, but there is a chance there may still be some phone delays."

In other CWA contract negotiations, the union reached agreement on a three-year contract with BellSouth late Saturday. The union is negotiating with U S West Inc., the regional telephone company in 14 Western states.

The U S West contract, which covers 35,000 CWA members, expires Saturday. A key issue is a company proposal to place new employees under a plan that would tie wage gains to performance, both sides said.

Pub Date: 8/12/98

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