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Qwest, union have reason to deal: DNC
Neither wants a strike before the convention
By Jeff Smith
Rocky Mountain News
Saturday, July 5, 2008

Qwest Communications and its largest union start new contract talks Tuesday, negotiations especially critical given the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Denver.

The current labor agreement is set to expire Aug. 16, just a week before the convention.

Donna Jaegers, a telecommunications analyst, said that timing provides some bargaining power to the union, while giving Qwest incentive to settle to avoid a strike and a public black eye.

Qwest is a major donor to the DNC and has been named the telecommunications services provider.

The Communications Workers of America represents roughly 21,000 employees, or about 55 percent of Qwest's work force.  A smaller union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, represents about 200 employees.

Al Kogler, spokesman for District 7 of the CWA, said the DNC obviously is in the back of the minds of the union and Qwest.  But he said the union also could draw a black eye if it goes out on strike.

"I think the last thing either of us want is a disruption at this point," he said.  "Both (sides) have compelling arguments to get this done."

Qwest spokesman Bob Toevs said the Denver telco is confident the two sides can reach an agreement.

"At this point, we're in the position to provide overall a fairly generous wage and benefit package," Toevs said.

Lead negotiator Reed Roberts of District 7 of the Communications Workers of America previously identified the "thorny issues" as including rising health care costs and retiree benefits.

Toevs said it's fair to say rising health care costs are a topic of discussion for every U.S. company.

"It's a topic we're concerned about and a topic our employees are concerned about," Toevs said.

He noted that Qwest and the CWA are members of a health care policy advocacy group.

The CWA's Kogler stressed there hasn't been a strike in 10 years and that the CWA is entering contract talks in good faith.  But he said the union won't hesitate to speak out if it believes Qwest is bargaining in bad faith, and a strike is always an option as a last resort.

He concurred with Qwest that rising health care costs will be a hot topic, as well as protecting jobs and trying to bring outsourced work, such as that at a call center in the Philippines, back into the union.

Kogler said the union will resist any Qwest effort to shift health care costs to employees because those costs would offset a wage increase.

"We know it's a bit of an uphill battle, but we would suggest you could buy a lot of health care with $17 million," he said, referring to the approximate value of CEO Ed Mueller's compensation package.

Currently, union employees don't pay health insurance premiums, but they do have co-pays and other costs, such as shared premiums for family members.  Retiree benefits also could be a topic of conflict at the bargaining table.

Traditionally, the two sides don't settle on a new contract until the final hours before the existing contract expires.

In 2005, the last bargaining round, union employees worked a couple of days past the expiration date but came to an agreement without a strike.

This is the first round of negotiations for new Qwest CEO Ed Mueller.

Qwest, facing declining land-line customers, and the CWA worked together earlier this year on a voluntary separation program.

The buyout, designed to eliminate about 700 jobs, provided severance benefits that exceeded union contract requirements.

The company and the union typically meet every day during negotiations.  They are meeting at an undisclosed location in the metro area.

smithje@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-954-5155

http://www.rockymountainnews.com/news/2008/jul/04/qwest-union-have-reason-to-deal-dnc/