Negotiations in the 13-day strike against Verizon Communications continued past the unions' midnight deadline into the early hours today with both sides reporting progress on key issues.
"We're really moving head," said Candice Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Communications Workers of America, one of the two unions involved. "We've got a lot of ground to cover, but we're making progress."
Johnson made those remarks at 12:30 a.m. today by telephone from Washington, where the talks are being held.
Yesterday, Verizon spokesman Eric Rabe reiterated his optimism that the 87,0000 workers that walked off the job Aug. 6 would soon return to work.
"I can say with certainty that the end of the strike is one day closer," Rabe said yesterday afternoon. "I absolutely believe that we can reach an agreement with the CWA and the IBEW today."
Officials from the CWA, which represents 72,000 workers, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents 15,000 workers, have complained about the talks' slow pace and maintained that the company wasn't addressing key issues of forced overtime, shifting work and job stress.
The IBEW had said that if the company didn't address its issues by midnight, it would walk away from the bargaining.
The northern unit of CWA, which represents 38,000 workers from New York and New England, issued the same ultimatum.
IBEW spokesman Jim Spellane said yesterday afternoon that a walkout looked less likely. As he spoke, the IBEW and the company were in serious negotiations on work movement.
"This could be the day we wrap it up, but the jury's still out on that one," he said.
Both unions have blamed the pace on what they call foot-dragging by Verizon. But they acknowledge that the three parties have different concerns, which has delayed progress.
The biggest issue for the electrical workers is fear that their jobs will be transferred to nonunion subcontractors.
The northern unit of CWA, which represents workers from the former Nynex Corp. before it merged with Bell Atlantic, is also primarily concerned with work movement.
The CWA's southern unit, which represents 34,000 workers, including 8,400 in Maryland, is more concerned about forced overtime, said the CWA's Johnson.
On Wednesday, southern negotiators made progress, but the other CWA unit and the IBEW reported deadlock.
The midnight deadline, Johnson said, "was a clear indication of how frustrated people are."
Despite the recent progress, she said yesterday, key issues remained unresolved.
"The movement of work has to be addressed. Thousands of jobs could be transferred," she said.
Johnson said CWA's southern unit had not decided whether it would join the others if they walked out.
Verizon could still negotiate with the remaining CWA unit, as has been done in the past.
If the strike drags on until Sunday, CWA workers will begin receiving $200 a week in strike benefits from the union's strike fund. By Aug. 29, the pay would increase to $300 a week - a fraction of the more than $800 a week many service representatives earn.
The strike couldn't have come at a worse time for Verizon, which was formed in June, when Bell Atlantic and GTE Corp. merged.
These weeks are the busiest in the phone industry, Rabe said. College students returning to campus will expect phone service.
During the strike, Verizon's 30,000 managers are not installing new service. They're focusing on repairs and maintenance, and some of those callers will have to wait.
Verizon reported 100,000 repair orders yesterday, and its managers clear about 25,000 a day.