Verizon, unions near agreement

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Verizon Communications and its unions were nearing an agreement Monday as 78,000 East Coast telephone operators and technicians began a fourth week on the job without contracts.

"The parties are close to an agreement," said Jim Spellane, spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents Verizon workers with the Communications Workers of America.

"They're working on final details, and hopefully those can be resolved quickly," Spellane said Monday.

Negotiators worked around the clock Sunday into early morning Monday, and were to resume talks after a break. They had made significant progress at the bargaining table through the weekend with federal mediators -- enough that a final deal was possible later Monday.

The unions' optimism comes as CWA opened its national convention Monday in Chicago.

Verizon spokesman Eric Rabe was more cautious. "How close we are remains to be seen," he said.

Neither side would say what final issues remained or what significant sticking points had been resolved.

Still, the tone was a stark turnaround from last week, when both sides sparred publicly over efforts to gain a public relations advantage.

The CWA sued Verizon and two executives after they listened in to the union's conference call with reporters about plans to urge the public to switch carriers.

Verizon had complained that a union official violated a previously negotiated cease-fire by using the slogan "Can you hear me now?" in the conference call.

The two unions have been negotiating with Verizon since June. Government mediators joined the talks in late July to successfully avert a strike planned for Aug. 3 that could have affected service from Virginia to Maine.

A strike in 2000 lasted 18 days, causing a backlog of about 250,000 repair requests and new orders.

Verizon's local phone service business is shrinking. Growth areas are in wireless and high-speed Internet, separate divisions of the company that aren't highly unionized.

At issue is how future layoffs will be handled and whether those workers can take jobs in other parts of the company.

Verizon cut 18,000 jobs in 2002, primarily through attrition and voluntary buyouts.


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