- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 4, 2009

NEW YORK | Union officials representing more than 100,000 workers at AT&T; Inc. expressed frustration with the phone company’s management Friday, saying the two sides are still far apart on important labor issues a day before contracts are set to expire.

AT&T;, the nation’s largest employer of union labor, is looking to get the employees to cover more of their health care costs, among other concessions.

Both sides say talks are likely to go into the late hours Saturday, when contracts covering landline employees in five regions expire at midnight.

“It’s time for management to get serious and step up the pace of bargaining,” said Annie Hill, executive vice president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA).

The union’s board on Friday approved a strike “if fair contracts cannot be reached in negotiations.” That is required by the group’s bylaws before a strike can be called. Workers voted last month to give their leaders that option.

Candice Johnson, a spokeswoman for the CWA, declined to comment on whether union officials are moving closer to calling for a strike.

“Right now, we’re focused on bargaining and trying to get quality contracts,” she said.

AT&T; spokesman Walt Sharp said, “We are continuing to bargain in good faith with the hope of reaching a contract on a timely basis.”

The negotiations cover landline employees, not workers in the mobile-phone unit of Dallas-based AT&T.; Six regions are represented in the talks, including one whose contract doesn’t expire for several months. However, union officials and management disagree on how many workers are covered by the contracts. The CWA says 125,000, and AT&T; says 112,500.

Mr. Sharp said there would be no disruption in phone service if there is a strike, because managers and contractors could take over certain tasks. He noted that negotiations typically continue until contracts expire and sometimes go beyond.

The last time this batch of contracts was up for negotiation, five years ago, there was a four-day strike. This time, the economic meltdown might have strengthened AT&T;’s hand, given employees’ fears about job losses.

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