- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 4, 2009

AT&T; and unions for its landline workers kept talking on Saturday, with a strike possible as soon as midnight if they don’t make a deal.

The two sides are still far apart, but the union is aiming for a new contract rather than a strike, said Candice Johnson, spokeswoman for the Communications Workers of America.

“We believe that management really has to step up the pace of bargaining if we’re going to get this resolved,” she said.

AT&T; is the most heavily unionized company in the U.S., with either 112,500 CWA workers (according to the company) or 125,000 (according to the union).

The company has said a strike won’t disrupt phone service because managers and contractors can keep the operation running. When this batch of contracts expired five years ago, workers struck for four days before reaching an agreement.

One key issue is the Dallas-based company’s attempt to have workers and retirees pay more of the costs of their health care. The company has said it spends $5.5 billion per year to subsidize health care for 1.2 million people, including workers, retirees, and dependents.

Contracts for workers in five units are each expiring at 11:59 p.m. local time in their region. Each region is bargaining separately. That means some could make a deal while others strike, Johnson said.

The units include a national group as well as workers in the Northeast, Midwest, Southwest, and West. The talks were taking place in New Haven, Conn.; Oakton, Va.; the Chicago area; Austin, Texas; and San Francisco.

“My guess would be they will continue right on through this evening,” AT&T; spokesman Walt Sharp said.

In addition, workers in the Southeast were bargaining in Atlanta. Their contract doesn’t expire until August so they can’t strike at midnight, the company said.

The employees covered by the expiring contracts work for the part of the company that is shrinking. AT&T;’s traditional wired phone business fell 3.3 percent to $17.1 billion last year, while wireless revenue grew 13 percent to $12.9 billion as customers continued to defect to cable phone services or dropped their landlines in favor of mobile phones.

AT&T; earned a $12.9 billion profit for the year, up from $12 billion in 2007. Its fourth-quarter profit fell 24 percent from the prior year, though, paradoxically because of its success in selling more of Apple’s iPhones than expected. AT&T; subsidizes the upfront expense of the iPhone, aiming to make the money back over the two-year service contract.

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