August 14, 2005 in Nation/World

Qwest talks nearing deadline

Jon Sarche Associated Press
 

DENVER – Citing disappointing progress in contract negotiations, a union representing 25,000 Qwest Communications workers in 13 states – including Washington and Idaho – moved a step closer to striking Saturday.

The Communications Workers of America’s executive board Saturday authorized the president to call a strike if a midnight deadline passed without a new contact, spokeswoman Candice Johnson said. The union’s president would still have to set a strike date before a walkout could begin, but that could happen at any time, she said.

“The executive board acted on reports from the CWA bargaining team, which indicated that many critical issues remain to be resolved, and that progress has been disappointing,” Johnson said.

Earlier Saturday, union negotiators said in an e-mail to members that Qwest had backed away from increasing mandatory overtime, one of the major issues holding up a new contract. But Qwest was not moving on health care and retirement plan issues, the message said.

Talks were on hold until either side called for a resumption, it said. Both the union and the company had said they wanted to avoid a walkout.

Bob Toevs, a spokesman for Denver-based Qwest Communications International Inc., declined to provide details of the talks Saturday.

“We continue to bargain in good faith,” he said. “We remain optimistic that we’ll come to an agreement.”

A walkout would affect employees ranging from customer service representatives to technicians in 13 states. Qwest could operate normally if the workers strike, Toevs said.

Negotiators said Qwest offered a wage proposal conditioned on increases in health care deductibles and co-pays. The company’s proposal said retirees and active employees could retain their current health care plan if they agreed to start paying a monthly premium, the union said.

Qwest was negotiating separately with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, a union representing about 300 workers in Montana whose contract also was set to expire late Saturday. Union negotiator Barb Stenquist said Saturday afternoon progress was being made.

Some employees and analysts have speculated the company might be using its mandatory overtime policy to avoid hiring new employees. In the past several years, Qwest has eliminated thousands of jobs as it struggled with multibillion-dollar debt and government investigations of its finances. It also has faced increasing competition from cable companies and Internet-based phone services.

Mandatory overtime was a major factor in the CWA’s 15-day strike against Qwest in 1998. The current contract calls for a maximum of eight overtime hours a week, which the union said the company wants to double. Workers said managers can order overtime on short notice, even during a shift.

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