Labor Meltdown?
GTE's protracted union headaches could lead to widespread strikes
By Alex De Grand

It's slow.

It's tiresome.

Since May 3, representatives of GTE and its unionized employees in Lexington have been plowing through round after round of proposals trying to draft a new three-year contract.

Perhaps torpor was setting in when somebody mentioned the prospect of tens of thousands of telephone workers going on strike from Maine to North Carolina, including Lexington.

Things might not have seemed as dull then.

"It's not a threat," said Mike Garkovich, spokesman for the Communications Workers of America Local 3372 in Lexington. "[But] it's a possibility."

Garkovich explained GTE has a number of unions working without contracts besides the one in Lexington. The CWA Local 3372, representing 1,100 employees, has been working on a contract extension since June 3.

Like the Lexington union which has already voted to go on strike if negotiations ultimately fail, these other unions in Indiana and North Carolina could also strike, Garkovich said.

And those GTE unions could choose to strike at the same time as the 72,000 Bell Atlantic workers whose contract is set to expire August 5.

The Bell Atlantic union reported July 25 it has already voted to strike if contract talks go nowhere.

GTE and Bell Atlantic, recently merged to form the company Verizon, could find their new happy family looking more like the Manson clan than the Brady Bunch.

"Bell Atlantic employees are more strident [than those at GTE]," Garkovich said. "Bell Atlantic employees don't work on extensions; historically, they give two weeks."

Garkovich said it would be illegal for GTE unions to walk out with the Bell Atlantic employees as a "sympathy strike" if they already have contracts. But GTE's employees don't have contracts, he said.

While a strike, especially one of such magnitude, poses a severe disruption to phone service, Garkovich said CWA Local 3372 would do some things to prevent a total catastrophe.

For example, Garkovich said CWA Local 3372 pledges to give 48 hours notice before walking out and would return if a tornado or some other disaster struck.

GTE spokeswoman Kathy Goss said the company doesn't publicly discuss contract negotiations.

But according to Garkovich, one of the few issues preventing a new agreement between GTE and the union is how many jobs GTE can send – or "outsource" - to contractors outside the company.

That issue is hardly a new one.

In March, the union scored a strong rebuke to GTE's outsourcing strategy when it won an arbitrator's ruling charging the company with breaking in 1998 its written pledge to "recognize and acknowledge" the unionized employees' right to perform telephone work.

For the union, the battle over outsourcing amounts to staying alive. For GTE, it is an effort to stay "competitive."

And although neither side says it wants to trigger the first work stoppage in Lexington since 1977, no one appears ready to give.

Documents from the negotiations show GTE is proposing to drop its pledge to "recognize and acknowledge" the unionized employees' right to perform telephone work and replace it with a more general statement allowing greater freedom in contracting.

Just as much as GTE would like to eliminate the contract language that tripped it up in arbitration, the union is just as interested in keeping it.

Outsourcing can be a contentious issue facing many companies, according to David Weller, the Bell South regional director in Frankfort.

Weller said companies need to take a hard look at what their businesses do best and decide what extraneous operations they can afford to send out of the company.

In the case of GTE, the company and the union have previously agreed collection agency work and some construction jobs can be contracted out, according to contract documents.

Weller said when a company thinks about outsourcing, it also needs to weigh the risks and benefits.

For example, contracted labor is often cheaper than regular employees since a company is not responsible for providing a benefit plan. If contracted workers have health insurance, it would have to be provided by the contractors who employ them.

On the other hand, Weller said, a company yields a great deal of quality control when it lets contractors perform work rather than its immediate employees. And customers will still hold a company responsible regardless of who actually does the work, he added.

"If a contractor doesn't bury a line, the customer is going to call me, not the contractor," Weller said.

It's not impossible to reach an agreement between employees and the company over outsourcing, Weller said.

"The CWA worked with us to establish an appropriate compensation rate based on the complexity of the work," Weller said.

Weller said under such an agreement, Bell South employees rather than contractors have been able to bury cable since March.

"We haven't had that [work] in-house in a long time," Weller said.

Can GTE follow Bell South and make peace with its union?

Weller said there are no right or wrong answers; it's all about negotiating the best business deal everyone can live with.

"Management wants the right to perform in the most cost-efficient manner for the benefit of its shareholders, customers and employees," Weller said. "Where should that line be drawn? It's all shades of gray."