- The Washington Times - Monday, August 7, 2000

Thousands of telephone workers along the East Coast walked off the job yesterday as contract negotiations between the former Bell Atlantic and two labor unions representing 87,200 employees continued into the night.
Negotiators reached a general framework for a new contract, but the two sides still had "a lot of serious issues" to discuss yesterday, said Eric Rabe, spokesman for the newly named Verizon Communications, the nation's largest phone company.
A new contract probably won't be reached for several days, he said.
"This is a cumbersome and very time-consuming but a very thorough process," Mr. Rabe said. "But we are prepared to continue talking as long as there is anything to talk about, until people collapse."
Verizon offered the new proposal to the Communication Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 15 minutes before the Saturday midnight deadline.
While bargaining continued at the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel in Southwest Washington, D.C., some of the company's 25 million customers had trouble reaching directory assistance or heard a recording saying no operators were available.
Customers could have problems with installation of new services and repairs if the strike drags on.
Although Verizon said the strike's impact has been minimal so far, heavy rain storms caused telephone disruptions throughout the Mid-Atlantic region yesterday, and there were some complaints about static over phone lines.
"People are feeling the impact, because they are not getting their listings because management can't find them," said Ella Simmons, an operator who has worked for the telephone company for 37 years.
She and nine other operators and technicians picketed at a service center on 21st and L streets NW yesterday from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. The average member of the group had worked for Verizon for more than 21 years.
"We've put a lot of years and effort into the company," said Ms. Simmons, an official for CWA Local 2300.
Only a few thousand of the 72,500 Verizon workers represented by the CWA and the 14,700 members of IBEW walked off their jobs after midnight yesterday. But they were joined by co-workers in the morning and afternoon for rallies at 300 buildings throughout Verizon's service area, like the one in Northwest D.C.
A dozen picket lines were formed in Virginia, two in the District of Columbia and three in Maryland. The unions have 17,600 members in the District, Maryland and Virginia.
More rallies are planned for today, including one at a Verizon building on Colesville Road in Silver Spring, Md. Workers are hoping their cause will get noticed along the busy commuting corridor.
During the strike, Verizon's 30,000 managers will fill in for the union workers in 12-hour shifts, seven days a week.
The fight could affect the changing telecommunications industry because it centers on job security when companies merge or develop new businesses or technologies. The unions want better pay and benefits and to limit Verizon's ability to hire contractors in areas like high-speed Internet service.
Much of the dispute is over the unions' desire to have better access to Verizon's fast-growing wireless division. Although most of the company's traditional land-line workers are union members, only 60 of the 32,000 wireless workers are unionized, said Candice Johnson, a CWA spokeswoman.
Union leaders want assurances the company will let union workers take jobs in the wireless operation and will give the unions more opportunity to organize wireless workers.
Verizon, citing the rapidly changing nature of the business, says it needs flexibility in determining compensation for wireless workers. It also says wireless workers should vote for union representation by secret ballot in a formal vote, rather than by simply filling out an authorization card, the method preferred by the unions.
Analysts say the unions' desire to reach wireless workers is a key part of the labor movement's strategy to revitalize itself.
"Because it's such a visible campaign in an industry that touches the lives of millions of people, any kind of success is bound to spill over to unionizing campaigns in other sectors of the economy," said Daniel Cornfield, a sociology professor and labor analyst at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.
The unions are pressing Verizon to limit forced overtime for operators and customer service representatives and stop contracting out work in growing lines of business, such as installation of Internet service lines.
About 150 people attended a Verizon rally in Greenbelt, Md., in heavy rain yesterday.
Afterward, Marilyn Irwin, a customer service representative and vice president of a local CWA chapter, described her work environment as oppressive, saying employees are forced to work overtime and can't take time off to go to the doctor.
The number of calls to customer service have increased recently, while the number of customer service representatives has diminished, Mrs. Johnson said.
Ms. Simmons and her colleagues expressed outrage over Mr. Rabe's claims last week that Verizon treats workers well because it gives them offices with windows and carpeting.
Customer service representatives must alert supervisors when they take a bathroom break, Ms. Simmons said.
While the strike continues, CWA has arranged for workers to interview for other jobs with local temporary agencies.
Verizon was formed June 30 when Bell Atlantic completed its purchase of GTE.
The last Bell Atlantic strike occurred two years ago and lasted two days. The one before that, in 1989, lasted three weeks.
Affected states are Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.
This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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