- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2000

The first business day of the strike by 87,200 unionized Verizon Communications workers from Maine to Virginia ended with some frustrated customers, but no major problems.

Like some of the former Bell Atlantic Co.'s other 25 million customers, Kelly Jones of Alexandria, Va., had a hard time reaching directory assistance yesterday.

"I was trying to get a number for the local pharmacy, and the first time I called 411, there was a message telling me to try my call later," she said. "So I did, and then I got someone. But it was slow today."

Other customers faced delays when calling for repairs and new service installation. The company said it had more backlog in those services toward the end of the day.

Another problem was static on the phone, as afternoon thunderstorms in the Washington region caused electrical interference.

"During the beginning, while I was on the phone long distance, there was thunder and I heard a crack in the line," said Megan Harris, a Fairfax, Va., resident.

Harry Mitchell, spokesman for Verizon, which was formed when Bell Atlantic completed its purchase of GTE Corp. June 30, said the company has had service delays, but that the network itself is humming along.

The delays are happening "because we only have the 30,000 managers who are stepping in for [87,200] employees," he said.

The managers are working 12-hour shifts while Verizon's 72,500 members of the Communications Workers of America and the 14,700 workers in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers strike.

Their contract expired at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, and the unions and the company have been bargaining at the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel downtown since.

The two sides made more compromises yesterday so that a contract addressing work conditions and union representation for employees in the fast-growing mobile phone industry could be reached.

But the talks hit a snag over several issues, including the shifting of work to areas that are not as heavily unionized or where the pay scale is lower.

"I would couch the talks as constructive, though there are still some tough areas to slug through," Mr. Mitchell said.

Negotiators ended the day's formal talks around 8 p.m. They expect to begin again this morning.

The biggest problems for Verizon are labor's push for union workers to be able to transfer into the wireless operation. The unions also want more opportunity to organize the wireless workers.

Although a majority of Verizon's traditional land-line employees are union members, only 60 of the 32,000 wireless workers are members of CWA or IBEW, said Candice Johnson, CWA spokeswoman.

Verizon wants wireless workers to vote for union representation via secret ballot, rather than by simply filling out an authorization card, the method preferred by the unions.

The parties had been negotiating for six weeks, but Verizon offered a new deal 15 minutes before midnight Saturday.

After overnight bargaining, the unions and company agreed Sunday on a general framework for the contract. But talks about the specifics dragged on for 16 hours and resumed yesterday at 8 a.m.

Meanwhile, about 14,000 workers picketed at hundreds of Verizon locations throughout the District of Columbia and 12 Eastern states yesterday.

CWA Local 2108 of Landover, Md., started the workweek with an 8 a.m. rally in front of one of the company's largest centers, in Silver Spring, Md. About 90 operators, customer-service representatives and technicians clad in the union's red T-shirts picketed at the center's entrance as managers reported to work.

"We are here to send the message to Bell Atlantic that we are out here to do whatever it takes," said Bob Campbell, president of Local 2108.

When the CWA went on strike two years ago, three protesters were arrested and traffic along Route 29 was jammed, he said. The Montgomery County Police Department yesterday sent about 50 officers to the rally. While two of them directed the striking workers so traffic would flow, the rest chatted over coffee and rested on their cars across the street.

"Hey-o, forced O-T has to go," the workers chanted, referring to the unions' push for Verizon to hire new workers and allow its employees some scheduling flexibility.

Other slogans included "I know I'm not dead, Verizon is seeing red" and "The CWA don't play, if you don't believe me, don't you see me."

Although rain didn't stop the morning's rally, it did increase Verizon's repair backup.

"Severe weather like this is not kind," Mr. Mitchell said.

The company yesterday reported five incidents of vandalism in New York, but Mr. Mitchell said it's not clear if the acts were connected with the strike.

Shares of New York-based Verizon closed at $47.88 yesterday, up 94 cents on the New York Stock Exchange. The company plans to announce second-quarter earnings today.

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