Don't let Hollywood images of beefy Teamsters beating the crap out of some hapless scab fool you.
Disagreements between the Communications Workers of America and GTE are more like the squabbles in a marriage than the nuclear war of divorce court.
Negotiations between GTE and Lexington's CWA Local 3372 got a little testy last week when the company floated proposals to tinker with the formula for calculating the pay of service center employees whose shifts run into the evening.
The CWA posted its annoyance on the "bargaining news" section of its webpage.
But that's about the most anyone outside the negotiations is likely to hear as union and company representatives hammer out a new contract, a task undertaken every three years.
Local 3372 public relations director Michael Garkovich said there is tension surrounding any type of negotiation, but those disagreements occur in a broader context of all the parties wanting to get along.
We dont want to strike; they dont want a strike, Garkovich said. Theyre slower to come by. In the 70s, if three days passed after the contract expired, you were out the door. Now, we work on an extension if progress is being made in the negotiations.
The upper levels of the CWA and GTE's other union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, are in a partnership with the company, he said.
One tangible example of what a friend GTE has in the CWA can be found in the effort to merge GTE and Bell Atlantic. CWA President Morton Bahr wrote a letter to the Federal Communication Commission, urging them to approve the merger.
Bahr asserted the merger will create jobs, expand services and options to residential and business customers, and provide real competition in a greatly expanded number of markets.
"We all know we have vested interests in the betterment of the company and the employee," Garkovich said.
And it isn't just the GTE managers who can feel the love tonight.
David Weller, the Bell South regional director in Frankfort, said his company has a similarly good working relationship with the union.
"This is a very rapidly moving technology business and [a company] needs a flexible, dynamic workforce," Weller said. "A company needs the ability to put its workforce in areas to respond to customer needs. Certainly in our case, the CWA has worked with us on those issues."
For example, Weller explained that when Bell South wanted to enter into the start-up business of national directory assistance, the CWA was flexible on structuring pay scales and job duties.
None of this is to say the CWA wouldn't ever strike, but it would take a lot more to trigger such an action than it did in the old days, commented Garkovich.
"We don't want to strike; they don't want a strike," Garkovich said. "They're slower to come by. In the '70s, if three days passed after the contract expired, you were out the door. Now, we work on an extension if progress is being made in the negotiations."
GTE spokeswoman Kathy Goss had no comment on the negotiations, but reported the last work stoppage in Lexington occurred in 1977 and lasted seven months.
Talk of strikes can prompt a lot of shirts to dampen around the armpit areas.
Not only do they inconvenience the customers who may or may not return when the strike is over, but the action can ravage the workplace environment.
"When I first started, labor-management relations were extremely strained," said Richard Powell, a retired GTE engineer who started work right after the last strike.
Powell said there were reports of ugly incidents during the strike, including damaged cars and intimidation.
When the strike ended, reconciliation proved to be a tough sell.
Besides tensions between union members and the managers, Powell noted the union was also at odds with those workers hired during the strike (some call them "scabs") who stayed after the strike.
Powell said by the time he left GTE in 1990, most of the bad feelings had healed. But the lessons weren't forgotten, he added.
"That's just evidenced by the fact they've gone from '77 without a strike and both sides are working not to have work stoppages," Powell said.
The current contract between CWA Local 3372 and GTE expires June 3. Negotiations began May 3.
Those talks are likely to be tense given that telecommunications is a highly competitive industry.
"Over 300 companies have filed for and gotten permission from the Public Service Commission to be local carriers," Weller said, adding even more want to be your long distance company.
Garkovich said the major issues boil down to working conditions, wages and benefits. But the most contentious issues aren't addressed until the latter part of the negotiations, he said.
Local 3372 represents about 1,100 workers, 600 of whom work in the service center, Garkovich stated.
The service center handles directory assistance and "0" operator calls, Garkovich noted.
Under the current contract, Garkovich said, the average service center operator earns about $8 an hour. Garkovich said salaries of technicians in the local are so varied and specified, it isn't possible to report their average wage.
So in a world asking, "Can't we all just get along?" the CWA and GTE are working up to the answer, "Of course." At least for now.
The union is seeking public support and plans to have an informational rally at the service center, 2001 Harrodsburg Road, at noon on June 3.
Alex De Grand can be reached at 225-4889 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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