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Striking telephone workers cite overtime, vacation

August 11, 1998

CWA strikeBy MATTHEW BIENIEK / Staff Writer

photo: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer




Striking Bell Atlantic workers in Hagerstown said Monday they could not predict how long the walkout that began Sunday would last but knew the issues that brought them to the picket line: Forced overtime, vacations and contract labor.

Seven strikers, wearing signs that read "CWA on Strike against Bell Atlantic,'' were picketing Monday near the Bell Atlantic office on Underpass Way near the Valley Mall.

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The Communications Workers of America called the strike along with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The local strikers are among 350 Bell Atlantic workers in the Tri-State area, and 73,000 from Maine to Virginia, who went on strike at 12:01 a.m. Sunday when talks on a new three-year contract broke down.

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"Right now that's hard to say. Me personally, I hope it's short," said Brian Bibbee, when asked how long the walkout would last. Bibbee of Bunker Hill, W.Va., is a cable splicer who works out of the company's Hagerstown garage on East Memorial Boulevard.

The striking workers in Hagerstown and Martinsburg, W.Va., are members of Local 2105, Communications Workers of America. Strikers in Frederick are members of Local 2100.

Overtime is a regular feature of the workweek, with workers getting the word late in the day, said strikers.

"It's not all because of the storms. It happens on a daily basis," said Bibbee.

Workers who are willing to take the overtime are not asked, he said.

"And they don't understand family issues," said Judy Butler, a translation programmer from Martinsburg, W.Va.

Taking vacation time was a problem, according to strikers. The company would not let workers take vacations when they wanted, especially in summer, the most convenient time for people with families, they said.

Butler said contract labor was a personal matter for her. Butler said more and more work for the company was handled by contract workers, who often were able to work closer to home than Bell Atlantic employees.

"For a while I had to commute 96 miles when jobs I am trained for were in Winchester (Va.)," she said.

CWA on strikeBell Atlantic spokeswoman Sandra Arnette said the company's contract offer contained a substantial pay increase, guaranteed no layoffs or forced transfers, and promised to expand the number of union jobs.

"I am optimistic, we are still negotiating and hope we can come up with a contract both sides are pleased with," she said.

Arnette said she did not want to make more specific comments on the strike or contract negotiations.

"These issues are at the bargaining table, and we want to keep them there," she said.

Management employees are working extra hours to fill in for striking workers, she said. Of 14,000 Bell Atlantic employees in Maryland, 6,358 are nonunion management workers, she said.

Striking workers are eligible for payments from the union strike fund after 15 days on strike. Checks are $200 a week.

Union members must perform picket line duty to receive strike fund payments, said Local 2105 President Jim Farris.

Most strikers prepare for the possibility of strikes by putting away some extra cash just in case, strikers said. Contracts between the company and union are up for renewal every three years.

Not much tension or bad feelings exist between local managers and striking workers, they said.

"We've worked with them for many years. They are your neighbors," said Sharon Weaver, a cable splicer from Big Pool.

Those on the picket line Monday were all veterans of the company - with years of employment ranging from 13 to 36 years with Bell Atlantic or AT&T, before AT&T was broken up into smaller companies. All had been on strike against the company before.

About 200 union members in Hagerstown and Martinsburg were off the job, said Local 2105 president Jim Farris. About 150 union members were on strike in Frederick, said Steve Holland, executive vice president of Local 2100.

Communications Workers union members set up four local picket lines, two in Hagerstown and two in Martinsburg.

Four strikers were walking the picket line about 1 p.m. Monday at the Bell Atlantic truck garage at 223 E. Memorial Blvd in Hagerstown. Workers who travel, including cable splicers and repairmen, are based at East Memorial Drive.

In Martinsburg, pickets were scheduled for the truck garage at 117 Tavern Road, and at the remote terminal plant at 2006 Mid-Atlantic Parkway, Farris said.

Five or six members are scheduled to picket at a time, said Local 2105 Secretary Dan Ruth. In past strikes, volunteers often increased the numbers of pickets at a site, he said.

Frederick union members set up picket lines at the main service center at 450 South St. and the Bell Atlantic Office at 33 E. Patrick St., said Steve Holland.

Most phone service is automated and was unaffected Monday, Bell Atlantic said. Company spokesman Eric Rabe said 23,500 managers working 12-hour shifts had managed to fill in for striking workers.

He said that if the strike continued there could be delays in paying bills by phone, and for installations or repairs.

''We want people to use the phone book instead of calling directory assistance, and credit cards instead of making collect calls,'' Rabe said.

The strike involves workers in Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Washington, D.C., and part of Greenwich, Conn.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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