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Bell Atlantic, union in bitter stalemate

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Labor Day brought nothing to celebrate yesterday at Bell Atlantic Corp.

As of today, the company's 37,000 members of the Communications Workers of America will have been working without a contract for a full month. Both sides agree that negotiations have been going nowhere. The prospects for a settlement anytime soon are virtually nil.

"Right now we are light-years apart. We have not moved one iota," said Charles Gerhardt, executive vice president of Baltimore's Local 2100.

Rather than strike, the CWA is apparently digging in for a long public relations war against Bell Atlantic, the only one of the seven regional Bell companies that has not signed a contract with the union.

The CWA continues to warn that a strike could come at any time, but statements by union leaders indicate that they are in no hurry to set up picket lines. Instead, the union has launched a $5 million advertising campaign attacking the company's labor relations record and attention to service quality.

One tactic the union has adopted to exert pressure on the company is to publicize the residential customer's legal right to ask for a free 900 call blocking service, which protects customers from having to pay for unauthorized calls to the myriad sex-chat lines and horoscope services that use 900 numbers. Such fliers have been widely distributed at the Maryland State Fair through the AFL-CIO's booth, said Mr. Gerhardt.

The tactic tweaks the company not only by aiming to deny it business but also by tying up customer service lines for a purpose that brings in no revenue.

Dave Pacholczyk, a spokesman for Bell Atlantic, said he wasn't aware that the campaign was having any impact on the company. But a memo apparently circulated by a Bell Atlantic executive indicated the tactic was getting under the company's skin.

"Employees who distribute fliers encouraging customers to block 900 calls are depriving the Bell Atlantic operating telephone companies of actual or potential revenue -- in other words, they are engaging in a consumer boycott of the company. This disloyal conduct will not be tolerated," said the memo that said it was from P. Tyler Williams, Bell Atlantic's vice president for labor relations.

The memo went on to describe disciplinary actions that could be taken against union members who take part in the activity, which union leaders contend is protected under the National Labor Relations Act. Mr. Pacholczyk said he knew of no disciplinary actions taken over the 900 number campaign.

Another tactic the CWA is using is to collect cards from members and sympathizers authorizing the CWA to cancel advanced Bell Atlantic services such as Call Waiting and Caller ID. Doug Thompson, a spokesman for the CWA bargaining committee, said the union has collected 20,000 such cards and is doling them out to the company whenever bargaining bogs down. He said the union has turned over 4,000-5,000 so far.

In addition to these public pressure tactics, Mr. Gerhardt said, CWA members also are engaging in the time-honored union practice of "work-to-rule" -- a method of slowing work down by meticulously following the company's prescribed procedures.

To this point there is no sign that the CWA's campaign is weakening Bell Atlantic's resolve to extract concessions from the union.

One sticking point in the negotiation is the union's adamant refusal to accept a system under which post-1989 retirees would have to contribute to their health care coverage. The issue is one of the most inflammatory in the talks, and the CWA has been stressing it heavily in its public statements.

The rub is that the company contends that the union conceded that point six years ago and again three years ago. The memo of understandings signed by negotiators from both sides in 1989 and 1992 appears to support the company position.

"The first plan year in which a covered retiree will be required to make a contribution to the plan will be the plan year beginning January 1, 1996, instead of the plan year beginning January 1, 1993," the 1992 memo states.

The CWA's Mr. Thompson said that language, which postponed a retiree co-payment provision that might otherwise have gone into effect in 1993, was simply "a way to agree to disagree."

"The company knows very well when we negotiated it that it was a way to put it off till this round of bargaining," Mr. Thompson said.

But Mr. Pacholczyk said the company believes it had a deal and is insisting that the union fulfill it.

"The union's point of view seems to be one of manana," said Mr. Pacholczyk. "Well, manana is now. It's time for that agreement to kick in."

Other bitterly divisive issues include the company's proposal to create a new subsidiary to handle construction in the part of the network that runs from the telephone pole to the customer. Bell Atlantic is proposing to let the CWA represent these workers but to set their salary about 40 percent below the current network scale for union workers.

Wages are also a point of contention, with Bell Atlantic offering a far smaller raise than the 10.5 percent to 11 percent over three years agreed to by the other regional Bells. Depending on whether you accept the company's or the union's figures, the raise offer is either 4 percent or 8.5 percent over three years.

Meanwhile, the union is seeking to strengthen job security provisions and to gain organizing rights at new Bell Atlantic subsidiaries.

While CWA leaders have refrained from calling a strike so far, many local leaders say they believe one is inevitable and that it will be, as Mr. Gerhart put it, "long and nasty."

National union officials say that with all of the CWA's major employers signed, they have a full war chest and the will to use it. The CWA recently raised its weekly strike benefits to $200 a week, raising the ability of members to weather a long strike.

Bell Atlantic has stated that it won't hire permanent replacements, so presumably the dispute will be resolved at some point.

"I don't know when it's going to happen," said Mr. Pacholczyk. "Ultimately it's gotta happen."

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