Members of Communications Workers of America, including operators, customer-service representatives and field technicians in a 14-state region, walked off the job at 12:01 a.m. when their current three-year pact expired.
Carla West, a spokeswoman for Local 7777 in Denver, said union negotiators did not believe they were making any progress on the key issues of a controversial performance-pay plan, mandated overtime and health-care benefits.
U S West spokesman David Beigie said, "Right now, we're dumbfounded. The union appears to be turning its back on one of the largest pay-and-benefit offers in the industry."
Beigie said it wasn't immediately clear when additional talks would be held. "We are willing to do what it takes to get an agreement," he said.
Picket lines went up immediately outside U S West offices across the region. Many workers in Denver wore sweatshirts with purple rattlesnakes and the phrase, "If provoked, I will strike" as they chanted and carried signs.
Eleanor Salzano, a worker and single mother, said she was angry because of the company's mandated overtime. "I don't want anything to happen to my child and day care will only keep him until 6:30 p.m.," Ms. Salzano said.
Chuck Swesey, 40, a picketing technician in Seattle, said he's willing to stay out as long as needed, even if it means losing his house. "I cannot afford to lose my dignity," he said.
Company officials dispatched about 15,000 managers across the region to handle operator assistance tasks and other critical jobs. They said customers can expect some delays in repairs, installation and directory assistance calls, but there should be little effect on automated phone service.
It was the first time employees have struck U S West since it was created in the 1984 breakup of AT&T.
Although two other Baby Bells, BellSouth and Bell Atlantic, reached tentative contracts with the CWA last week, officials at U S West and the union were unable to agree on the company's plan to base salary increases on job performance. U S West is the first Baby Bell to propose such a pay structure.
Under the company's proposal, all workers would receive 100 percent of the base salary, with the option of earning up to 20 percent more by meeting targets, such as completing a preset number of repair calls within a specific time period. Failing to meet the goals would not affect base pay.
Employees who are hired before Jan. 1 could choose whether to participate in the new plan, but it would be mandatory for anyone hired after that date.
U S West officials began a performance-pay program for sales associates three years ago, and say about 80 percent of the qualified workers are involved. They now wnt to extend it to 7,100 technicians responsible for repairs and installations.
Company officials said the plan is necessary to improve customer service as U S West faces increasing competition. But union officials said it would be a difficult plan to implement for repair technicians because many factors are out of their control, such as weather and equipment problems.
Union officials also said the company is forcing many employees to work 60-hour weeks, but U S West officials insist they have been hiring new workers for three years to reduce mandatory overtime.
The negotiations between the two sides grew more intense on Friday when federal mediator Jim Mahon joined the sessions, first separately with representatives of each side and then as a group.
At mid-afternoon Saturday, U S West officials introduced a wage-and-benefit package that offered 18 percent over five years, which they said was the "best-in-the class," but union officials said it would not help if performance-pay were still on the table.
"It's not just the dollar amount that's a problem with the package," said Ms. West.
"That's hand in hand with our issue of mandatory overtime," she said. "In order to meet the benchmark base, you'd have to work overtime. They're already working overtime in an unsafe environment. They're exhausted."
The union represents about 34,000 of U S West's 51,000 employees.
U S West also was in contract talks with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents about 600 workers in Montana. The current pact was set to expire at midnight, but the two sides agreed to extend it indefinitely while talks continued.
Based in Denver, U S West has about 25 million customers in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Montana, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
Written by Sandy Shore