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Pact elusive while Bell, unions talk Cutbacks prompt stress on job security


Bargainers for Bell Atlantic Corp. and two unions representing 52,000 workers resumed talks yesterday but remained far apart on the issues, fueling speculation that a strike would be called against the regional phone company.

"We are still far apart on the major issues and we are nowhere near reaching a settlement," said Pat Shelor, a spokesman for the Communications Workers of America (CWA). "But we will continue to negotiate as long as progress is being made."

Representatives of Bell Atlantic, CWA and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) have been meeting since June to decide on terms for a new three-year contract.

The old contract was to expire at midnight Saturday, but union negotiators have "stopped the clock."

The CWA represents about 40,000 workers -- about 8,500 in Maryland -- and the IBEW represents about 12,000 workers regionwide.

Bargainers met nearly round-the-clock over the weekend at a Washington hotel and continued discussions yesterday, adjourning late in the afternoon.

Job security, a recurring sticking point in past discussions, has taken on added importance in light of Bell Atlantic's recent reductions in size.

Since 1986, Bell Atlantic's unionized work force has been trimmed by more than 10,000 people, part of an effort common throughout the industry to cut costs and boost profits. The company recently announced plans to trim its unionized work force by an additional 3,450 workers -- voluntarily, if possible -- by Christmas.

Overall, the communications industry has cut 23,000 union jobs VTC since 1986, according to the CWA.

The upshot is that union jobs are disappearing fast at Bell Atlantic, with little sign that they will return.

In turn, the CWA and IBEW are looking for new job opportunities for union workers elsewhere in the company, particularly in Bell Atlantic's non-unionized businesses.

Since the breakup of American Telephone & Telegraph Co. in 1984, Bell Atlantic has acquired 19 non-unionized companies in the United States that are engaged in businesses ranging from real estate to health care. Together, those companies have about 8,500 employees.

Altogether, Bell Atlantic has spent nearly $2 billion to buy or acquire a major stake in 23 companies worldwide, including a major stake -- $1.2 billion worth in the local phone company of New Zealand. Bell Atlantic, the parent of Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. of Maryland, has 75,000 workers.

CWA can try to unionize the 19 companies in the United States on its own but does not want to do so because the process is time-consuming and tedious. Instead, the union wants Bell Atlantic to give the unions permission to move in without delay.

Bell Atlantic 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.

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