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GTE Workers Threaten Strike as Talks Break Off

Times Staff Writer

As many as 15,000 GTE California employees are preparing to strike Monday if their demands for a salary hike and improved medical benefits are not met.

A strike could affect 2.9 million telephone customers from Santa Barbara to San Bernardino.

After five months of negotiations, talks between GTE and the Communications Workers of America, the employees’ union, broke off Wednesday afternoon, spokeswomen for both sides said Thursday. The two sides would not say how far apart they are.

“There will be a strike unless some kind of miracle happens between now and Monday,” said union spokeswoman Gwend Johnson.

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If a strike does take place, GTE’s 4,000 management employees will fill the positions of the striking workers, which range from directory assistance operators to customer representatives, GTE spokeswoman Ilona Smith said. GTE’s customers will continue to receive telephone service during the strike, she said, but repairs and new telephone orders could be delayed a few days.

“Our system is so highly automated it is not difficult to keep things operating during a strike,” Smith said.

Most of GTE’s California customers live in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara, Ventura and Imperial counties.

Government mediators were called in several times during the negotiations, but both sides in the dispute said they could not agree on employee salaries and medical benefits. The previous contract expired in March, and negotiations have been continuing since then.

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GTE proposed an 8.79% salary increase spread over the next three years, Smith said. But last month the union rejected the offer by a 55% to 45% margin, Johnson said. The union contends that GTE offered only a 7.9% pay hike plus a lump sum payment. Johnson would not say what the union was asking.

The union also voted down GTE’s medical benefits package that, among other things, would increase some out-of-pocket expenses and the deductible employees must pay before their insurance coverage begins, Johnson said.

“We are angry,” Johnson said. “Our employees have worked real hard to make the company profitable, but the company is not willing to share the profits and maintain the employees’ standards of living.”

Smith countered that GTE’s profits--$342 million in 1988--were down $20 million from the previous year.

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“We think it is a fair and equitable offer,” she said.

Although both sides are gearing up for the strike, representatives say a resumption of negotiations before Monday is not out of the question.

The union last struck GTE in 1963 in what was then one of the longest and most bitter labor disputes in California’s history. That strike lasted almost five months and involved about 9,000 union employees.


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