Originally created 08/01/98

Union takes strike authorization vote as deadline nears



ATLANTA -- The union representing more than half of BellSouth's employees was completing a strike authorization vote Friday, with barely a week left before the current three-year contract expires.

The Communications Workers of America union, negotiating for some 48,000 workers in BellSouth's nine-state Southeast region, expected to tally and make public the vote this weekend.

BellSouth spokeswoman Deborah Spicer said the vote was standard procedure in such contract negotiations, which she said were progressing. The two sides planned to meet through the weekend, with the contract set to end at midnight Aug. 8.

"We remain confident we'll have an agreement by Aug. 8," she said.

But union officials said major differences remained.

"We have a long way to go," said CWA spokesman Jimmy Smith.

The union workers involved include operators, repair workers, cable crews, technicians, administrative assistants and others.

Smith said key issues include retiree and health benefits, the company's contracting-out of work, job security and "forced overtime." Union workers complain of having to repeatedly work 60-hour, six-day workweeks.

Ms. Spicer said the company is acting in accordance with the 1995 agreement on work hours and overtime. She added that BellSouth has added some 3,000 jobs this year.

"Meeting the diverse needs of our customers is our first priority," she said. "Having a really strong company meeting customer needs -- that's job security."

She said the average tenure of the union workers is 22 years.

BellSouth hasn't had a strike since the "Baby Bell" was created in 1984. The CWA went on strike against AT&T for three weeks in 1983.

The CWA is North America's largest telecommunications union and represents 600,000 workers overall.

Atlanta-based BellSouth, with $22 billion in annual revenues, provides telecommunications, wireless communications, cable and digital TV, and Internet and data services to some 30 million customers in 20 countries.