With predictions looming of the longest strike to hit the phone industry in a generation - long before competition from cell phones or e-mail - Verizon Communications Inc. and two unions representing tens of thousands of its workers remain at odds over job security issues as the clock ticks down on a contract due to expire at midnight tomorrow.
About 79,000 Verizon workers from Maine to Virginia - including 7,200 in Maryland - are poised to strike if the two sides can't reach an agreement by tomorrow night, an outcome that industry analysts contend is very likely.
"It would take an extraordinary development to avert a strike," said Scott Cleland, a telecommunications analyst and chief executive officer of Precursor Group, a Washington research firm.
If employees do head for the picket line, experts say, the action will reverberate all the way through to consumers' living rooms: waits for new installation, repairs, customer service and directory assistance will all increase, industry analysts say.
Workers in those areas are among the ones who would stop work in the event of a strike, with recently retrained non-union workers filling their duties.
"In many cases, you really need these technicians to help switch on new service ... and my sense is there are going to be lots and lots of frustrated consumers out there," said Anand Anandalingan, a professor of management science at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.
The backlog may be aggravated by the fact that several phone companies, including Verizon and companies that lease Verizon's extensive network, have rolled out new offers in the last month, and many people move into new homes this month just before the school year and require new phone lines, Anandalingan said.
Both sides remain hopeful that they can avoid what threatens to be one of the nation's longest phone strikes in an era of diminishing union clout in traditional major industries.
Verizon and the two unions, the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, agreed last week to seek assistance from a federal mediator. Key issues in the current negotiations include job security, health care and mandatory overtime.
The two sides have been bargaining to reach an agreement since June 16, but they have also spent weeks preparing for the worst. Verizon has put managers through rigorous training so they can fill jobs they don't typically do.
Union officials, meanwhile, have been holding rallies for their members. "We're out here now mobilizing our folks to get ready for anything," said Gloria T. Pack, president of CWA Local 2101 in Baltimore.
Verizon employees last went on strike for 18 days in 2000. For many consumers, the strike was how they learned of the company, which was created earlier that summer from the merger of the Bell Atlantic Corp. and GTE Corp. Verizon has since grown into the largest regional phone provider in the nation.
The telephone industry has changed drastically in the three years since, with competition from carriers assisted by new federal rules and with consumers increasingly opting to use cheaper cell-phone plans to place long-distance calls.
"It was  days last time and that was when they were fighting over a growing pie, and it's a negative-sum game right now. The wireline business is imploding," said Cleland, the Precursor analyst.
The longest telephone strike in history was seven months in 1971 at New York Telephone, then a subsidiary of AT&T Corp. Employees eventually went back to work after gaining a $1 a week pay increase - considered a win for the company, said Jeffrey Keefe, a labor and employment relations professor at Rutgers University.
Consumers have been drawn into the current controversy with barrages of advertisements, from union ads in newspapers to Verizon's commercials depicting a fictional diner where customers tout the company's benefits.
Verizon wants the ability to require overtime work and it wants employees to contribute to the rising cost of health care. Verizon workers and retirees currently contribute a co-payment toward doctor visits and prescriptions, but pay nothing toward insurance premiums, which the company says costs it about $2.7 billion a year.
Union representatives are opposed to a change in health insurance contributions. They also want to protect a clause in their contract that requires the company to give employees at least four hours notice for overtime work and would forbid more than 7 1/2 hours of mandatory overtime a week.
Job security also remains a major sticking point. Thousands of Verizon employees have been laid off in recent years as the company struggled to cut costs while it was required to open its networks at wholesale prices to competitors. A New York arbitrator recently ordered the company to rescind 2,300 layoffs in the Northeast, leaving Verizon even more determined to gain work-rule flexibility.