Bell Atlantic talks still hung up, frustrating both sides


So what's the holdup?

It has been almost a week since Bell Atlantic Corp.'s contract with two major labor unions was set to expire. Yet the two sides seem no closer to resolving their differences now than they were two months ago, when contract talks began.

That makes Bell Atlantic the only one of seven regional Bells still trying to come up with a new contract after its old one expired. U S West, which provides telephone service in the West, is still negotiating with its labor unions, but its contract doesn't expire until tonight. Nynex, which serves the Northeast, has a contract that runs until 1995.

The Communications Workers union, which represents 40,000 workers -- 8,500 in Maryland -- and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents about 12,000 workers, have been meeting in a Washington hotel with Bell Atlantic in nearly round-the-clock sessions for the past week trying to agree on terms for a new three-year contract.

Bell Atlantic's unionized employees, meanwhile, continue to work under terms of the old contract, which was extended indefinitely shortly before it was set to expire at midnight last Saturday. By technically "stopping the clock" on the old contract, union bargainers averted a strike.

Yesterday, the two sides agreed that little progress had been made in the past week. Not wanting to derail any agreement that VTC might be in the works, bargainers were reluctant to lay blame,But it was clear that patience was wearing thin on both sides.

Pat Shelor, a CWA spokesman, said a series of last-minute proposals from Bell Atlantic, many of them give-back requests, have slowed progress. Mr. Shelor said the first of those requests, concerning retiree health-care costs, came 48 hours before the contract was scheduled to expire.

"We knew then we couldn't do it," said Mr. Shelor, referring to the union's efforts to negotiate a new contract before the expiration deadline. "The bulk of our time this week has been spent trying to get those demands off the table."

Larry Plumb, a spokesman for Bell Atlantic, disagreed.

"I wouldn't characterize it [company demands] as all give-backs," Mr. Plumb said. "There's been a lot of give and take by both sides."

One example of how talks can bog down can be seen in the events that followed Bell Atlantic's last-minute proposal on retirees' health care.

Mr. Plumb said the company offered to postpone for three years -- from 1993 to 1996 -- the date by which retirees would have to start shouldering more of their health-care costs.

The offer came despite a previous agreement from the union to let Bell Atlantic start charging retirees more in 1993. Under the company's late proposal, retirees wouldn't start paying until 1996.

"We thought the bite would be too big and too abrupt for retirees," Mr. Plumb said.

But instead of welcoming the proposal, the CWA was suspicious of Bell Atlantic's motives. The union contended that the company shouldn't have waited until two days before the contract deadline to suggest important changes to any agreed-upon issue.

"I can't fathom why they'd wait that long to bring it up," Mr. Shelor said.

Bell Atlantic is equally frustrated with the union. Mr. Plumb said the company thinks it has made more than a good-faith effort to address union concerns and is "beginning to get concerned" about the slow pace of progress in contract talks.

" 'Why is it taking so long?' " shot back Mr. Plumb. "We're beginning to ask ourselves the same question."

Talks are scheduled to continue throughout the weekend.

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