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Talks Seek To Avert Phone Strike

Hoping to avert a strike this weekend, officials from major phone companies were talking Thursday with union representatives in an effort to resolve differences over employment contracts.

If a strike did occur, it could affect customers throughout the East Coast. Two of the companies involved, Bell Atlantic Corp. and BellSouth Corp., together cover most of the area from Georgia to Maine.

Some 120,000 workers at the two companies were prepared to go on strike 12:01 a.m. EDT Sunday if the sides don't agree on a new three-year contract by then.

Another 40,000 workers at U.S. West Inc. (which supplies service to upper Midwest and Rocky Mountain states) and a GTE Corp. unit threatened to strike a week later.

Differences in the talks, taking place separately for each company, include a Bell Atlantic proposal to hire more nonunion workers for jobs now done by union workers, and proposals by the Baby Bells to require employees to work extensive overtime, a union official said Wednesday.

"We hope we will be able to reach an agreement, but we have some serious disagreements right now," said Candice Johnson, a Washington, D.C.-based spokeswoman for the Communications Workers of America (CWA) union.

The CWA represents 73,000 employees at Bell Atlantic, 48,000 at BellSouth, 36,000 at U S West, and 3,700 at a GTE unit in the Southwest. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) represents another 11,000 Bell Atlantic workers in upstate New York and New England. An IBEW official said he wasn't aware of the status of talks.

Steve Marcus, a spokesman for New York-based Bell Atlantic, would only say the company and unions "are working hard to reach an agreement by the deadline."

Deborah Spicer, a spokeswoman for BellSouth, based in Atlanta, described the threatened job action as part of the normal negotiation process. "Our negotiations are progressing well," she said, but declined to elaborate on remaining obstacles.

The phone company workers who are prepared to strike include repairmen, line installers, and customer service representatives. That means customers may be inconvenienced by delays in getting phones fixed, special services such as Caller ID, second phone lines, and answers to billing questions.

To put the pressure on Bell Atlantic, workers in the New York City region were planning to decline to work overtime on Saturday, several Bell Atlantic workers said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Union officials declined to comment.

Written by David E. Kalish