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Strike by Bell Atlantic unions looms tonight Bargainers say they're far apart on the issues


With a strike deadline less than 24 hours away, bargainers for Bell Atlantic Corp. and two unions representing 52,000 workers remained far apart on the issues yesterday.

If no agreement is reached by midnight tonight, roughly 8,500 workers in Maryland could be walking the picket line, repeating the events of three years ago, when negotiations broke down with Bell Atlantic over terms of the current contract.

"There doesn't appear to be that much progress right now," said Pat Shelor, a spokesman for the Communications Workers of America in Washington.

Larry Plumb, a spokesman for the Philadelphia-based parent of theChesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. of Maryland, agreed that "some serious issues remain on the table. But that doesn't negate the fact that we're making progress."

The CWA and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers have been in joint bargaining with Bell Atlantic for a new three-year contract since June.

Bargainers said they planned to negotiate round-the-clock to try to reach an agreement before the current contract expires tonight.

The contract covers 40,000 CWA workers and 12,000 IBEW workers from Pennsylvania to Virginia.

CWA and IBEW leaders have the authority to call a strike if an agreement is not reached, but that decision is optional, and a strike is not automatic at midnight.

But when the two sides were unable to come to agreement three years ago, the unions called a regionwide strike against Bell Atlantic that lasted 23 days.

In the event of a strike, it is unlikely that phone service will be disrupted, since the network is highly automated. Some functions, such as directory service and installations, would be staffed temporarily by Bell Atlantic's non-union workers.

The unions and Bell Atlantic have failed to agree on key issues in this round of talks, including job security, wages, pensions and health benefits.

Bell Atlantic has offered to increase the amount it pays into various pension plans, but the offer "isn't significant enough to accept," CWA's Mr. Shelor said.

Bell Atlantic also has proposed introducing an incentive pay plan for some employees, primarily those in sales-related positions. The unions have rejected that idea.

Health care is another stumbling block. The company has said it cannot afford the benefits it now offers and wants employees to shoulder more of the cost.

There is also a question of job opportunities for union workers at Bell Atlantic's non-unionized businesses,which are becoming an increasingly important part of the company.

The CWA can go through a formal process to unionize those entities, but it does not want to do that. Citing job security, CWA wants Bell Atlantic to give the union automatic recognition in those businesses. But that process could be lengthy.

Bell Atlantic has resisted that approach, contending that its non-regulated businesses are not part of the current contract and therefore are not an appropriate issue for discussion.

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