A phone strike was put on hold this morning when Verizon Communications Inc., the dominant local carrier from Maine to Virginia, and its major employee unions agreed to continue negotiating past a midnight deadline.
Talks were scheduled to resume at 10 a.m. today.
Negotiators representing the company and the unions, the Communication Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, agreed to continue meeting at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service in Washington. Peter Hurtgen, director of the mediation service, called for the recess and asked the parties to return to meet with him this morning. Talks have been going on with government mediators since Tuesday.
The decision, for the time being, stalls fears of a strike that would involve 78,000 workers throughout the Northeast and could disrupt some aspects of phone service, especially for customers seeking new orders, repairs or other assistance.
"We continue to bargain and believe we have a fair and reasonable offer on the table," said Verizon spokeswoman Sandra Arnette in Maryland, where the company employs 7,200 workers as one of the state's 10 largest private employers.
At CWA Local 2101's meeting hall in Northeast Baltimore, chapter President Gloria Pack informed about two dozen members early this morning that talks would continue today.
"We are still at work. We still fight. We still get paid," she told the group to a smattering of applause. People departed - and left behind signs they had constructed during the evening with slogans such as "Health Care and Job Security" and "CWA on strike against Verizon for hometown jobs and quality service."
Union leaders said that enough progress had been made at the bargaining table to continue working toward a settlement, although they cautioned that key issues remain unresolved, according to a CWA statement early today.
After negotiations began six weeks ago, industry analysts predicted a strike with near certainty because Verizon and its unions remained far apart on significant issues such as job security and health care.
If the negotiations fail to reach a new contract and a strike results, more than 20 million residential and business consumers in the Northeast might not notice much difference in their largely automated phone service. But customers seeking new service, repairs or directory assistance are likely to have longer waits.
"It almost invariably means that consumers get less service," said Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America in Washington.
The labor talks at Verizon have been closely watched as a measure of unions' might during a tight job market with a Republican administration in the White House.
Job security has been a major issue in the talks.
Verizon, the nation's second-largest telecommunications services provider after AT&T; Corp., says it needs greater flexibility to cut jobs or move them to compete more nimbly as telecom competitors and emerging services such as cell phones slice into its core landline business.
Verizon wants to be able to transfer as many as 8 percent of the jobs covered by the contracts, up from less than 1 percent.
However, the unions say that job security is crucial - especially in the fragile economy.
"There's tremendous anxiety in this country right now about stability of jobs," said Jeffrey Keefe, a labor and employment relations professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Verizon has laid off thousands of employees during the past year. Its work force is at 154,000, down from 172,000 about a year ago. An arbitrator recently ordered the company to rescind thousands of layoffs in New York, which led the company to retract layoffs in some neighboring states. Verizon said that decision makes it even more determined to gain work-rule flexibility.
Another key issue is health care. Verizon employees and retirees contributed a co-payment for doctor visits and prescriptions but paid nothing toward health care premiums under the contract that just expired. Verizon said health benefits cost it about $2.7 billion a year.
Union workers also sought to maintain a clause that limits mandatory overtime to 7 1/2 hours per week and requires four hours' notice for overtime duty. In addition, the unions want access to jobs being created in the growing and nonunionized wireless division, the leading mobile phone carrier in the country.
Of the four "Baby Bells" that evolved from the federal government breakup of the phone monopoly nearly 20 years ago, Verizon has emerged as the strongest. Last week, the New York-based company reported that it earned $1.9 billion during the second quarter.
Verizon was formed in 2000 from the combination of Bell Atlantic Corp. and GTE Corp.
But its hold is weakening as regulations continue to open the industry to competition. Consumers are also increasingly choosing other means to communicate, from using cheaper cell phone plans for their long-distance calling to using Internet telephony.
Union representatives have been rallying their members to prepare to walk off the job. Besides Maryland, they represent workers in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
Verizon's unionized workers last struck in 2000, for 18 days.
The company said it has been training about 30,000 managers and contract workers to fill in on union jobs in the event of a prolonged strike.
The company also hopes technology could ease its way through any labor disruption. On its Web site, it advises customers to manage their accounts through verizon.com or by using the company's interactive voice recognition technology to get answers. As for repairs, the company advises: "If you're having trouble with your home phone, the solution is often an easy fix that you can handle on your own," and points to instructions in the phone directory.
"Can they keep the trains running reasonably on time?" Ned Zachar, a telecommunications analyst with Thomas Weisel Partners in New York, asked rhetorically.
"They probably can for some period. Time will tell."