Phone pact must hurdle local issues


In the words of Charlie "Boots" Buttiglieri, executive vice president of Local 2101 of the Communications Workers of America: "It ain't over till it's over."

And for Bell Atlantic Corp. and two of its unions, it isn't over until both sides agree on remaining local issues at the individual phone companies within Bell Atlantic's family of subsidiaries.

Those issues vary according to the company, but they include such things as wage differentials, grievance procedures and the use of outside contractors.

Although the company and the unions reached a tentative contract agreement Sunday, that pact covers broader issues for all Bell Atlantic regional telephone companies. The accord provides for raises of 11.74 percent over three years. The two sides are now in the process of addressing local issues that affect the individual companies and their workers.

Under terms of the broader agreement, reached with the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Bell Atlantic has offered to make its new wages retroactive to Aug. 9 -- the day after the old three-year contract was slated to end -- if the unions can settle those issues by midnight Friday. Together, the two unions represent about 52,000 workers.

If they can't agree by the end of Friday, Bell Atlantic would have the option of not making those rates retroactive for CWA's 40,000 workers -- 8,500 of them in Maryland -- and IBEW's 12,000 workers.

That could put the two sides back to square one, Mr. Buttiglieri said. "We've been out on strike over them before, and they've held us up from going back to work," Mr. Buttiglieri said. "So all I can say about this one is: It ain't over till it's over."

Indeed, local issues can have a major influence on the ultimate outcome of contract talks. According to Mr. Buttiglieri, the strike against Bell Atlantic three years ago would have been at least five days shorter had it not been for the inability of the two sides to agree on local issues.

For Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. of Maryland, one of four C&P; companies in Bell Atlantic's stable of telephone companies, the main local issues this year are wage differentials for workers and the company's use of subcontractors. The other companies are in Virginia, West Virginia and Washington.

Regarding wages at the local level, the two unions in Maryland would like to see the differential shrink between workers in Baltimore and some of the outlying areas, Mr. Buttiglieri said. Under the current system, workers in Baltimore are paid higher scales than those in, say, Annapolis, a function of the "wage bands" that were established by the company long before the 1984 breakup of the phone company.

Currently, top pay for a unionized worker who does inside wiring is $606 a week. But a person performing the same job in Annapolis makes $555 a week at top scale.

Wage bands were originally established to give a financial cushion to people who live in more expensive, urban areas.

The only problem is, those wage bands haven't kept up with outward sprawl of the cities. Annapolis, for example, is still ranked one step below Baltimore for wages, suggesting that it is less expensive to live there than in Baltimore.

Then there's the matter of subcontracting. C&P; uses outside contractors for a variety of jobs, and the union would like to see the practice limited.

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