A total of 5,000 Bell Atlantic workers went on strike in New Jersey Sunday, while another 15,000 are striking in Pennsylvania. Some 70,000 Bell Atlantic telephone employees from Virginia to Maine went on strike at midnight Sunday.
"We are hopeful that we can get this resolved," said a Bell Atlantic spokeswoman, calling the walkout unnecessary.
Tens of thousands of other telephone workers prepared to walk off the job when their contract expired early Sunday morning, possibly leaving millions of callers across the nation on hold.
Customers could experience delays using directory assistance or making collect calls if the more than 120,000 union workers at Bell Atlantic and Bell South go on strike. Customer service, including installation, repairs and billing, also would be affected.
Last minute negotiations were being held in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and Atlanta. In addition to job security and overtime, negotiations also were being held on regional issues such as pay hikes.
The hiring of nonunion workers for some jobs and forced overtime have been stumbling blocks for management and union workers trying to negotiate a new three-year contract, said Candice Johnson, spokeswoman for the Communications Workers of America.
"You're always hopeful in contract talks," Ms. Johnson said Saturday. "Both sides want to reach a settlement, but at this point nothing has changed."
In Boston, union leaders representing about 16,000 Bell Atlantic workers in New England negotiated with the company through the day in an effort to avert a region-wide walkout.
An official with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers which represents about 13,200 those employees said negotiators expected to agree on a contract by the midnight deadline.
"We don't have any major stumbling blocks right now," said Ed Fitzpatrick, president of IBEW's Local 2222. "We have things we have to iron out, but we feel we're going to get by them."
Though the contracts covering unionized workers were set to expire at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, the telephone companies remained optimistic.
"We talked yesterday. We talked last night. We talked this morning. We're focusing all of our efforts on reaching a settlement," said Bob Varettoni, a Bell Atlantic spokesman in New York.
To pressure the company, workers in the New York area refused to work overtime late Friday and Saturday. Customer service operations already were affected; pre-recorded messages told callers the system was busy.
In Providence, R.I., local union officials said Bell Atlantic had agreed in principle to its main objective: a no-layoff pledge.
In North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, New Jesey and Pennsylvania, workers had already made up picket signs and drawn up picketing schedules.