- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 16, 2000

Verizon Communications and the two unions representing its 87,200 striking workers took major steps toward agreeing on a new contract yesterday, both sides said.

"There is actually discussion on some of the key issues, and that's a positive development," said Candice Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Communication Workers of America, which represents 72,000 of the workers. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers represents the rest.

This is the first time in 10 days of negotiations that Verizon has shown willingness to change its policy of forced overtime and made concessions toward better working conditions for service-call workers, Mrs. Johnson said.

"We believe and continue to believe that we have a good, solid contract on the table, and hope the union will soon agree with us," said Verizon spokesman Eric Rabe.

But Mrs. Johnson said the proposal, made Sunday night, was lacking and that progress was not made until yesterday, when the company addressed the issues of mandatory overtime and working conditions.

In the meantime, Verizon's work backlog has increased to between 80,000 and 90,000 repair requests. The requests usually total about 35,000 on a normal day.

Since the strike began Aug. 6, some of Verizon's 25 million residential and business clients have experienced long delays in reaching operator and directory assistance. Others are waiting to have their telephones fixed or to have new lines or Internet service installed.

While operators, technicians and service-call representatives in the District and 12 East Coast states from Maine to Virginia are on strike, Verizon's 30,000 managers have been filling in on their jobs.

Nearly 300 Bell Atlantic retirees have joined them, helping them clear between 25,000 and 30,000 requests a day, Mr. Rabe said.

He also raised the possibility of hiring an outside company to help answer customer calls, but he gave no details.

Verizon ran new advertisements yesterday apologizing to its customers for any inconvenience the strike has caused.

An agreement could be reached by the end of the week, or "in a matter of hours if people decided that it's time to do that," Mr. Rabe said.

Negotiations have been held every day at the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel in Southwest since shortly before the strike started.

Meanwhile, workers picketed at nearly 400 sites in Verizon's service area yesterday.

Mr. Rabe said 169 more incidents of violence and vandalism occurred yesterday, most of them in New York state. That brings this week's toll to 239 cases of vandalism or threats to managers, he said.

Confrontation between the company and unions started last week. Verizon claimed more than 400 incidents of vandalism to its facilities, and that managers incurred injuries from bottles, eggs and stones thrown at them by protesters. A spokesman said 24 arrests were made last week.

Verizon is offering a $25,000 reward for information that would lead to successful prosecution.

The unions denied any involvement in the incidents.

But Mrs. Johnson said she had heard of managers insulting the striking workers. Last week, some workers were sideswiped by managers driving in to work, she said.

Shares of Verizon closed down 50 cents to $42 yesterday on the New York Stock Exchange.

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