Qwest talks near deadline
DENVER – Citing “disappointing” progress in negotiations, a union representing 25,000 Qwest Communications International Inc. workers moved a step closer to striking Saturday, hours before the existing contract expires.The executive board of the Communications Workers of America authorized a strike, spokeswoman Candice Johnson said. Last week, workers who voted overwhelmingly authorized a strike. The union’s president would have to set a strike date before a walkout could begin. Johnson said that could happen at any time.”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,” she said.Earlier Saturday, union negotiators said in an e-mail to members that Qwest had backed away from increasing mandatory overtime. But Qwest was not moving on health care and retirement plan proposals opposed by the union, the message said.Qwest spokesman Bob Toevs declined to provide details of the talks or of contingency plans in place in case of a strike. “We continue to bargain in good faith. We remain optimistic that we’ll come to an agreement by tonight’s deadline,” he said.He said Qwest could operate normally if the workers strike.Union members planned to start gathering at the local headquarters at 6 p.m. to prepare in case of a strike.Negotiators said Qwest offered a wage proposal conditioned on changes in health care plans for retirees and active employees, including increases in deductibles and co-pays. The company’s proposal said retirees and active employees – who have never had to pay a monthly health insurance premium – could retain their current health care plan if they agree to pay a monthly premium, the union said.A walkout would affect employees ranging from customer service representatives to technicians in 13 states. 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 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 a 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.In 2003, the CWA and the IBEW representing Montana employees approved a contract with two bonuses instead of a salary hike in part because of the company’s problems at the time – $20 billion in debt, stagnant revenue and government probes of financial statements.The company is working to reduce its current debt of about $17 billion after losing out this year in a bidding war for MCI Inc. to Verizon Communications Inc.Qwest provides local phone service and other communications services in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.Vail – Colorado
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