With talks between Bell Atlantic Corp. and two labor unions representing 52,000 workers set to resume this morning in Washington, the two sides remain far apart on a number of key issues, wages, pensions and job security among them.
Bargainers for the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) met with Bell negotiators through the weekend but were unable to agree on terms for the new three-year contract.
Union bargainers "stopped the clock" at midnight Saturday, when the current contract was scheduled to expire. The move allowed employees to continue working under the existing contract -- temporarily averting a strike against Bell Atlantic.
But the unions have not ruled out the possibility of calling a strike if the two sides are unable to make headway today.
"Those talks [on Tuesday] had better deliver," said CWA spokesman Pat Shelor. "We have the option to start the clock whenever we want."
The CWA and IBEW have been in joint bargaining with Bell Atlantic since June. The contract covers 40,000 CWA workers -- 8,500 in Maryland -- and about 12,000 IBEW workers. The unions represent operators, cable installers, switching equipment operators and Yellow Pages advertising salesmen.
When the two sides were unable to come to an agreement three years ago, the unions called a regionwide strike against Bell Atlantic that lasted 23 days. That strike was called by union leaders less than six hours after the old contract expired.
In the event of a strike, it is unlikely that telephone service will be disrupted, since the network is highly automated. If a strike is called, Bell Atlantic has plans to staff some functions, such as directory service and installations, with non-union workers temporarily.
A major sticking point in the current talks is the issue of job security.
CWA and IBEW are looking for job opportunities for union workers at Bell Atlantic's non-unionized businesses, which are becoming an increasingly important part of the company.
The issue of job security has taken on newfound importance in recent months at Bell Atlantic, which recently announced it intends to cut 3,450 workers -- voluntarily, if possible -- by Christmas.
Mr. Shelor said the unions have presented Bell Atlantic with a list of 31 non-regulated businesses that they would like to see opened up to union workers.
CWA can try to unionize those entities on its own, but it does not want to do that because the process can be time-consuming and laborious.
Citing job security, CWA wants Bell Atlantic to give the union access in those businesses, a move that would allow CWA and IBEW to move in without delay.
"We believe our members have every right when downsizing exists to have other opportunities in other parts of the company," Mr. Shelor said.
Southwestern Bell, the regional Bell in the Southwest, apparently agrees with that logic.
Bargainers for the union and Southwestern reached a tentative agreement over the weekend that grants the union neutrality and access for organizing Southwestern Bell's unregulated subsidiaries.
The agreement also grants surplus employees transfer rights to other subsidiaries.
Bell Atlantic, one of seven regional Bell companies, has flatly rejected that approach, contending that its non-regulated businesses are not part of the current contract and therefore are not an appropriate issue for discussion.
As a result, the company has refused to discuss the issue with union bargainers.
"The issue is employment security, and there are lots of ways to achieve that," said Larry Plumb, a Bell Atlantic spokesman. "One way is to have a competitive, viable corporation."
In addition to Southwestern Bell, BellSouth and Ameritech have reached tentative agreements with their labor unions.
Pacific Telesis, which operates on the West Coast, is continuing to hold talks with its unions, as is U S West, which provides telephone service in the West. U S West contracts expire Saturday.
Nynex and its unions are operating under a contract that runs until 1995. Nynex provides telephone service in the Northeast.