After months of intense bargaining, Verizon Communications Inc. and unions representing 78,000 of its workers from Maine to Virginia are close to agreement on a new contract, sources close to the negotiations said.
Verizon and the two unions, the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, have been in contract talks since June.
Verizon's unionized employees, including 7,200 in Maryland, have been working without a contract since their old agreement expired at midnight Aug. 2.
"I can confirm that the talks have progressed, and we are very close to an agreement," IBEW spokesman Jim Spellane said yesterday. But "there are still some final details to be worked out."
CWA spokesman Jeff Miller said "important unresolved issues" remained yesterday afternoon. Talks were expected to continue today, the union said.
One key piece of the expected five-year contract is an agreement for no increases in health care premiums for Verizon's unionized workers or retirees, according to a source close to the negotiations.
Those groups contribute co-payments for doctor visits and prescriptions but pay nothing toward health care premiums under the old contract.
Job security and health care benefits have been important issues in the negotiations. The details have been kept behind closed doors since federal mediator Peter Hurtgen joined the talks July 29.
Verizon spokeswoman Sandra Arnette would neither confirm nor deny yesterday that an agreement was imminent. The company said in a statement that "there is no specific new information to report at this time."
CWA spokeswoman Candice Johnson said earlier yesterday that the two sides had made significant progress over the weekend.
"There are still some issues that we're working to resolve, and at the same time, you're going over the language and going over the contract details, and that takes time," she said in a phone interview from CWA's annual convention in Chicago.
"These are better sounds than we've heard for a while, but until we have a deal, all it is, is backroom whispers," said Scott Cleland, a telecommunications analyst and CEO of Precursor, a Washington research firm.
Both Verizon and the unions have described the negotiations as crucial to the fate of the company and its workers.
Verizon has said it needs more flexible work rules that will allow it to move workers from job to job or state to state to compete in the fast-moving telecommunications industry. The company is also seeking to cut what it describes as high benefit costs.
Union leaders have said their ability to protect members' jobs and benefits is facing a crucial test. The unions' bargaining power in future negotiations and the outlook for organized labor will be affected by the outcome of these negotiations, labor experts said.
Despite the showdown, the unions and the company have said throughout the negotiations that they hope for a speedy resolution.
"Both sides, I think, were feeling economic pressure to work this out without a stoppage," said Charles Craver, a labor law professor at George Washington University Law School and author of The Intelligent Negotiator.
The mood among Verizon workers has been tense in recent weeks, with many union members wearing red shirts and buttons and rallying outside their offices to show solidarity.
At a rally outside Verizon's Hunt Valley office last week, Larry Vick, executive vice president of CWA Local 2101, pumped up a group of about 20 workers as he stood in front of a pile of tchotchkes that were once gifts to employees. Pointing to the mound of Verizon hats, clocks and mugs that the union was planning to return to the company, Vick shouted: "Is integrity in that pile? Is job security in that pile?"
"No!" the workers yelled back.
A strike had appeared to be likely when the previous contract expired this month. The unions accused Verizon of seeking a walkout, and some industry analysts theorized that a months-long work stoppage might actually benefit the company financially.
But with the stakes high for both sides, negotiators sidestepped a walkout and began the federally mediated negotiations behind closed doors.