Strike Against AT&T; Looms Sunday : Long-Distance Personnel Ready to Walk Out as Talks Stall

Times Labor Writer

The possibility of a nationwide walkout against AT&T; increased Friday as representatives of the Communications Workers of America reported major differences with the company on wages and other issues, with only one day left to negotiate before a strike deadline.

If AT&T;'s 155,000 long-distance operators, installers and repair personnel strike at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, management personnel will step in to provide many of the services customers regularly use, AT&T; spokesman Herb Linnen said.

As he has all week, Linnen late Friday continued to take the optimistic line that a walkout could be averted. But he acknowledged that the negotiations would go to the deadline.

‘On Verge of Strike’

Rozanne Weissman, the Communications Workers’ public relations director, was considerably less upbeat. “There hasn’t been much movement in negotiations,” she said in a telephone interview. “We’re on the verge of a strike.”

The company is also negotiating with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents 40,000 employees. The two unions traditionally honor each other’s picket lines.


Linnen said a strike would bring a halt to AT&T; manufacturing operations at 25 plants in 17 states. He said management personnel would operate 700 phone center stores and nine AT&T; Communications consumer market sales centers.

“If there were a strike, there would be little impact on most customers’ ability to make and receive long-distance calls,” he contended, because AT&T; has a highly automated network. He said 90% of AT&T;'s 33 million daily long-distance calls are dialed directly by customers.

Harder to Get Operator

Linnen acknowledged that there would be greater impact in circumstances where customers need the services of an operator. He said management personnel would be working 12-hour-day, 6-day-a-week shifts in an attempt to keep the system operating during a strike.

The company has a management force of 115,000 to draw from for these duties and other strike-related needs, Linnen said.

Weissman said business customers would be seriously affected by a strike. “Our members build, maintain, install and repair large business equipment,” she said.

She acknowledged that AT&T;'s highly automated system would normally reduce the union’s strike leverage. But she said the union was in a stronger position because AT&T; is facing growing competition now that it is operating in a deregulated marketplace.

The negotiations, which started April 2, had not been expected to be this tense. Last year, in early talks on the contract, the union and AT&T; came close to reaching a new agreement. But the negotiations foundered on critical job security issues, which have become increasingly important in the rapidly changing telecommunications industry.

Contract Ended Early

In another move that signified amicable labor relations, Morton Bahr, president of the Communications Workers, announced in February that the union would allow its contract with AT&T; to expire two months earlier than scheduled in hopes of gaining an early agreement before the union began negotiations with the seven regional telephone operating companies that were created as a result of the court-approved divestiture of the Bell system on Jan. 1, 1984.

But, as of late Friday, the union had spurned the company’s offer of a 5% wage increase over three years and was continuing to balk at what Weissman called several “major take-aways” the company was demanding. “We will not accept concessions on health care,” she said. Weissman said the company had made a positive offer on employment security, but she said it was not as substantial as the union wanted.

Last year, 16,800 union members lost their jobs when the company eliminated 24,000 positions and closed the last domestic plant making home telephones, moving that work to Singapore. The union is also trying to prevent the company from subcontracting work that traditionally has been done by its members.

Company Profitable

Company representatives have said that AT&T; has to cut costs to compete more effectively with foreign firms and a growing number of non-union companies. But Bahr has noted on a number of occasions that AT&T; is a highly profitable company in a growing industry. AT&T;'s profits were $530 million in the first quarter of 1986.

Union contracts with the regional telephone companies, including Pacific Telesis in California, expire on Aug. 9. Those companies would continue to operate in the event of a strike against AT&T.; However, they could experience some disruption during the first few days of a walkout because, in many instances, they share facilities with AT&T.;