WASHINGTON (AP) - Having stepped back from their threat to break off contract talks, negotiators for 87,000 striking Verizon Communications telephone workers expressed optimism Friday that a revised company proposal could end a two-week strike.
The stepped-up bargaining came as Verizon reported its first major system outage since the strike began.
"We're going in the right direction," said Jeff Miller of the Communications Workers of America, the larger of two unions negotiating to replace contracts that expired Aug. 6. He said the unions were "beginning to see more substantive bargaining" on key union concerns, including mandatory overtime and the movement of work.
The unions fear that Verizon, the product of a summer merger between Bell Atlantic and GTE, will shift work within its expanded region to areas where labor is cheaper.
Officials of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents about 14,700 workers, said it looked forward to reviewing Verizon's latest offer.
"We wanted progress to be made and progress, in fact, has been made," IBEW spokesman Jim Spellane said Friday afternoon. "There's still much to be done, though. We're not there yet."
The progress Friday persuaded union representatives to stay at the table despite earlier threats to abandon the talks at 12:01 a.m. EDT Friday.
The strike has affected repairs, installations and directory assistance in a dozen Eastern states and the District of Columbia.
The new round of talks came just as Verizon customers in northern New Jersey experienced the system's first failure since Aug. 6.
Verizon blamed a malfunctioning telephone switcher for an overnight outage knocking out long-distance service to hundreds of thousands of customers in and around Bergen County, N.J., from midnight to 8 a.m. Friday.
"Since then, it's been fine," said Jane Valente, of Hoboken, N.J., in nearby Hudson County.
But repair calls continued to build up, Verizon spokesman Eric Rabe said, with 100,000 repairs pending Friday. He estimated that about 50,000 customers were without basic phone service.
Ronald Piana of Huntington Station, N.Y., said Friday he and his neighbors had been without telephones in their homes for nine days because of a line break that hasn't been repaired.
"This puts an unfair burden on the population," he said. "It could be dangerous if you can't dial 911 and you're having a coronary or if there's an accident."
The strike affects 25 million Verizon consumers in Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia.
|On the Net:|
Verizon Communications: http:www.verizon.com
Communications Workers of America: http://www.cwa-union.org
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers: http://www.ibew.org