Proposed US West/Qwest merger raises concerns of CWA officials

If a merger announced July 18 gets the approval of regulatory agencies in 14 states, 36,000 union workers at the Baby Bell company US West Communications may have to get acquainted with a new set of managers at a non-union upstart telecommunications firm known as Qwest.

For months, US West had been discussing a merger with another company, Global Crossing, which had the blessing of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) international union. Then Qwest made US West managers a more attractive offer. While it still looked like both were being considered, the CWA international weighed in with press releases critical of Qwest. In a June 16 press release, the union characterized Qwest's first bid as a "throwback to the days of corporate raiding," and a "slash-and-burn merger strategy." The following week, CWA President Morton Bahr wrote a letter to the governors of the 14 states in US West's service area appealing to them to oppose the merger, which Bahr predicted would drain jobs and investment from the region and further imperil already-declining service quality.

Two days after US West and Qwest announced agreement on the merger details, CWA issued a statement saying it would study the merger further, but that it was encouraged by Qwest's public statements that it intends to add thousands of technician and sales jobs as a result of the merger.

Due to a successor clause, the current CWA contract will remain in effect after the merger.

Carla Floyd, president of Portland-based CWA Local 7901, described the union's relationship with US West as "strained" following a 15-day strike last year. Four-year-old Qwest has no relations yet with any union.

The union's national leadership considers the merger a "done deal," and, while continuing to study Qwest, is refraining from commenting on the company.

Leaders of Local 7901, however, are pessimistic about the chances the relationship with Qwest/US West will be any better than the relationship the union has had with US West.

Their criticisms center on the history of Qwest boss Joseph P. Nacchio, who was head of AT&T's small business division, which sells phone systems and long distance services. Nacchio oversaw mass layoffs that resulted in closure of the Portland office.

Madelyn Elder, CWA 7901 secretary-treasurer, described Nacchio's contribution to the division's strategy as a continual increase in sales quotas, amounting to a protracted speedup. Elder says by February 1997 there were 30 active grievances in the division's Portland office (of 60 employees) and a high percentage of workers out on stress-related disabilities. Conditions were so poor, she recalls, that when the closure of the Portland office was announced at a special employee assembly, workers applauded.

Qwest and US West are promising that no layoffs of union workers will result from the proposed merger. In a July 18 letter to Floyd, US West CEO Sol Trujillo wrote, "Many mergers depend for their success on the financial advantages created by reduced operating costs and a downsized workforce. Our merger, on the contrary, will be a springboard for growth."

In fact, the services of the two companies don't overlap much. The core of Qwest's business is an 18,800-mile nationwide fiber optic network, whereas U S West is a local telephone service provider for much of the Western United States.

Still, Floyd greeted with skepticism the announcement that the merged company would be hiring more employees. She maintains that the company has to hire just to keep current personnel levels -there's high turnover in sales and a lot of technicians are senior and retiring employees.

And Elder is concerned that non-union Qwest employees may be used to do work that unionized U S West employees are now doing, particularly the work of clerks, sales, and support staff, which comprises over 50 percent of the membership.

August 20, 1999 issue

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