CWA workers at Qwest Communications ready to strike in 13 states

About 22,000 Qwest Communications workers across 13 states — including Oregon and Washington — were ready to go on strike as of press time, though no strike date had been set.

Their contract expired Aug. 14 with no new deal in place. Qwest and the union — Communications Workers of America (CWA) — continued to meet, and workers continued to show up to their jobs. But Portland-based CWA Local 7901 President Madelyn Elder said the two sides were “very far apart, miles apart.”

Despite the fact that CWA members at US West went on strike in 1998 to get an eight-hour-a-week limit on mandatory overtime, Qwest, which bought US West in 2000, was proposing a 16- hour a week limit. Qwest backed off that proposal Aug. 14, but continued its demand that its union workers and retirees pay more out of pocket for health benefits.

The expired contract was first negotiated in 1998 as a three-year pact. In 2001 it was extended two years with cost-of-living raises. In 2003 the union agreed to a second two-year extension, this time with a wage freeze and increased employee contribution to health care premiums.

Now, Elder said, CWA wants “modest, reasonable industry-standard wage increases.” Other local phone providers have agreed in recent contracts to annual raises of 2 to 2.5 percent. But the bargaining with Qwest, bogged down over overtime and health coverage, didn’t even get to wages until the day before the contract expiration.

Qwest last year had $13.4 billion in revenue, and profits of $3.6 billion before interest and taxes. With its core revenues coming from traditional telephone lines, the company has faced declining revenues from increased competition for the last several years. Plus, the company ran up $25 billion in debt under CEO Joseph Nacchio, who was ousted in 2002 and now faces federal fraud charges. But Nacchio’s successor Dick Notebaert has reduced the debt $5.2 billion in the last two years, and the company said in recent reports to stock analysts that the decline in revenues has halted. Last year Qwest paid Notebaert $4.6 million in salary and bonuses and $6 million worth of stock options.

“Our members want Qwest to succeed, but we also expect management to come to the bargaining table with fair proposals, not excessive demands for shifting health care costs to workers and retirees, and demands for increased mandatory overtime work that force workers to spend even more time away from their families,” said Annie Hill, CWA District 7 vice president in a statement to the press.

CWA represents Qwest workers in 13 states: Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Idaho, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. [Qwest workers in a 14th state, Montana, are represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), which bargains separately.] If a strike commences, phone service won’t be interrupted, but customers with billing questions or needing repairs or installation, may have to wait.

With members having voted 91 percent in favor of strike authorization, CWA could call members out on strike at any time.

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