The union representing 73,000 workers at Bell Atlantic Corp. -- Maryland's dominant local phone company -- moved a step closer to a strike yesterday when the executive board of the Communications Workers of America authorized the union's president to call a strike if negotiations fail to produce a new contract by Saturday.
The union's rank-and-file, including phone line installers and technicians, repairmen, operators and customer service representatives -- 7,200 of whom work in Maryland -- voted July 10 to authorize the strike.
The union's next step is to set a date for a strike, which could begin after midnight Saturday, when the CWA's three-year contract expires, union officials said yesterday.
In a growth industry such as telecommunications, a strike could be harmful to Bell Atlantic and its customers, analysts and union officials said.
The union represents Bell Atlantic workers in Maryland, the District of Columbia, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York and New England. If they walk off their jobs, consumers could face delays in local phone service, said Candice Johnson, a CWA spokeswoman.
The basic system that sends a dial tone is automated, but other services, such as phone line installations, directory assistance, repairs and billing, could be affected, she said.
A strike, especially if it dragged on, also could slow the phenomenal expansion at Bell Atlantic, which recently announced plans to buy GTE, another telecommunications heavyweight, in a stock deal valued at about $52 billion.
Moreover, phone companies are facing increasing competition as some states, including Maryland, begin a push to open local telephone service to competition.
The union recently reached an agreement covering workers at AT&T; Corp., which is seeking to compete locally in Maryland. CWA also reached agreements with SBC Communications Inc., Ameritech Corp. and Lucent Technologies Inc., analysts said.
"It would be in the best interest of both sides to not go on strike," said Mel Marten, an analyst with Edward Jones & Co. in St. Louis.
Bell Atlantic officials generally have remained tight-lipped during the negotiations, which are being held in New York, where the company has its headquarters, and in Arlington, Va.
"We will not characterize the talks other than to say our focus is to reach an agreement by the Aug. 8 deadline," said Steve Marcus, a company spokesman in New York.
Two weeks ago, Bell Atlantic announced that its second-quarter profit rose 11 percent to $1.07 billion. The company's shares yesterday rose $1.2813 to close at $46.625.
Bell Atlantic's history with strikes is brief. In 1989, the CWA walked out for three weeks over a health care issue that wasn't resolved before the contract's expiration date, Johnson said.
Bell Atlantic employees worked six months beyond the August 1995 expiration date while negotiations continued on the current contract. That contract wasn't signed until February 1996, Johnson said.
Bell Atlantic workers might again opt to continue working, said Marten, the Edward Jones analyst.
The nation's economic boom has created more jobs, providing a more conducive atmosphere for strikes.
The Teamsters union won significant contract concessions at United Parcel Service last summer, and the United Auto Workers recently ended two-month strikes that effectively shut down North American production at General Motors Co.
Johnson, the CWA spokeswoman, said union negotiators will decide whether the talks are progressing enough to warrant working without a contract.
The issues are typical: wages, benefits, subcontracting and job security. But CWA officials said the trigger issue for its members is "forced overtime."
Earlier this decade, the telecommunications industry downsized -- "mostly to please Wall Street, " said Johnson -- just as the demand for additional phone lines for computers and faxes in homes increased and businesses began to upgrade their technology.
And that meant there were fewer workers doing more work, she said.
According to the CWA, in some cases workers have been asked to work 10 hours a day for six days a week, or 13 days in a row.
'Stretched to limit'
"It's clear our members are stretched to the limit," Johnson said.
Steve Marascia, an analyst with Branch Cabell & Co. in Richmond, Va., said a short strike should not harm Bell Atlantic.
"Obviously, the company will try to give the workers what they want while trying to keep its expenses low," Marascia said.
"If not, a short strike might put some pressure on Bell Atlantic's stock, but in the long term, it shouldn't affect its business plan for growth," he said. "But if a strike happens and it lasts for a year, then it'll be a different story."
Pub Date: 8/04/98