CWA reaches tentative deal with Qwest

Communication Workers of America (CWA) announced on June 12 a tentative agreement with Qwest Communications International that contains no wage or benefit increases but promises substantive improvements in working conditions, job security, and the ability of the union to organize non-union parts of the company.

If approved by members, the two-year agreement would cover 27,000 of the company’s 50,000 employees, including 1,100 from Portland-based Local 7901. Ballots will go out June 23 to Qwest employees in 60 CWA locals, and will be counted Aug. 1.

Negotiations began early and took just five weeks to complete, with both sides agreeing from the start that since the financially-troubled company couldn’t offer material improvements, it would have to give ground on other issues that employees care about. The last contract involved a three-week strike before the two sides came to an agreement.

Jay Boyle, executive vice president of Vancouver-based CWA Local 7812, and part of the seven-person union bargaining team, said the union-management relationship is slowly changing and becoming less acrimonious since the departure of Qwest chief executive officer Joseph Nacchio in June 2002.

Union leaders say Nacchio ran the company into the ground, both financially and in the eyes of customers. Today, the company suffers high levels of debt from its multiple acquisitions.

That means no money for any kind of pay raise in the new contract, though employees will be paid an annual lump sum bonus of 1 to 3 percent, based on company earnings before interest and taxes.

Union employees will continue to get fully-paid family health coverage, though co-pays for office visits and prescription drugs will increase, and some elective proceed- ures will be reduced to cut costs.

Union negotiators bargained hard to win improved job security. In the last two to three years, thousand of CWA members have been laid off or had their work contracted out or been reclassified as management. Under the new agreement, contracted-out work would have to be returned in-house before any employee could be laid off. And past decisions to contract out work or reclassify workers as management will be reviewed, and if the decisions were not found to benefit employees, rescinded.

Work conditions would also improve. Under the new agreement, the company would pay a premium if employees are called to work on short notice or made to work past scheduled hours, or required to wear a pager. And labor-management committees were set up to develop more employee-friendly policies on monitoring of calls, and to develop more reasonable sales quotas.

Finally, as at other telecommunications companies, CWA pursued a “bargain to organize” strategy. The new Qwest agreement expands slightly CWA members’ ability to show pro-union sentiment in the workplace. And the agreement contains a neutrality clause in which the company promises not to oppose union organizing campaigns.

Local 7901 President Madelyn Elder said the terms of the new Qwest neutrality agreement are better than those of the AT&T neutrality agreement, though CWA still hasn’t achieved its ultimate goal of automatic union recognition where more than 50 percent of workers sign union cards.

Qwest’s wireless, DSL and international fiber optics divisions are largely non-union. Union density is highest in basic telephone service in the 14-state territory of former baby Bell US West, which Qwest acquired in 2000.

The union leadership is recommending a “yes” vote on the agreement, and Boyle predicts it will pass. If so, the contract will run through Aug. 13, 2005.

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