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Tony Allongo was mad. His lips tightened and he lowered his eyebrows with displeasure when he talked at a Miami meeting of the Communications Workers of America this week about current and former coworkers at BellSouth who he thinks will be shortchanged under the terms of a contract proposed by BellSouth Corp. There’s the phone line maintenance worker who has a fractured disc in his back but still hasn’t been able to qualify for company-sponsored disability payments. The executive vice president of Miami-Dade’s Local 3122 of the CWA also worries about coworkers who might not be able to stomach the proposal that employees pay up to 60 percent of their prescription drug payments. All await the resolution of contract negotiations between the Atlanta-based telecommunications giant and the CWA. The deadline to sign a new contract is midnight Saturday. If a contract hasn’t been signed by then, the CWA — which represents more than 50,000 employees in nine southern states, including Georgia, Kentucky and the Carolinas — vows to go on strike. That number includes most of BellSouth’s 5,000 South Florida service employees. “We are not asking for a hell of a lot,” said Allongo. But while the union rallies the troops, BellSouth dismisses the idea that there’s even the possibility of a strike. “We feel very confident we’ll have a contract by Aug. 4,” company spokesman Spero Canton said this week. One of the most contentious issues is the parties’ inability to come to terms on how to define short-term or long-term disability. “You almost have to be comatose to be eligible for short-term disability,” Allongo said. “We have people with back trouble and serious illnesses who can’t get disability.” As long as an employee is capable of performing some sort of job at BellSouth, even if it’s not the employee’s normal job, the employee isn’t eligible for company-sponsored disability payments. The union also is agitating for double-time payments for Sunday and holiday work. And it objects to a company proposal to install global positioning system trackers in BellSouth trucks so the company can find workers at any time and track the amount of work they complete. Allongo’s constituency finds that proposal unacceptable. Moreover, the union wants the company to change its evaluation methods for customer service representatives. Under the current guidelines, more than 86 percent of employees failed to meet expectations and sales quotas, he explained. That’s one of the main reasons why 96 percent of the union’s membership voted to go on strike. Spokesman Canton declined to comment on any of the issues, or to say whether the company is making any preparations for a strike. The union, however, claims that managers are being trained to handle the responsibilities of employees who might be out on strike. PREPARED TO WALK But history shows that the parties will likely compromise before the Saturday deadline, said Charles Hall, associate director of the Center for Labor Research and Studies at Florida International University. Hall, who has served as a mediator in contract negotiations, isn’t involved in the BellSouth matter. “At the beginning of negotiations, there’s always posturing,” he said. “The companies and unions always take positions that are far apart. A strike deadline is just an incentive for the parties to bargain.” The union still says it isn’t taking no for an answer and won’t agree to any extensions of the strike deadline. It’s prepared to walk despite a sluggish economy that has spurred Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan to cut interest rates six times this year to stave off a national recession. “We aren’t going to compromise on medical or the wage increase or on the issue of stress levels for service representatives,” Allongo said. He thinks BellSouth can absorb any cost outlay necessary to meet the union’s demands. For the second quarter, BellSouth reported earnings per share of 52 cents and $7.4 billion in revenue, an increase of 8.9 percent from the same period a year earlier. Those results are about in line with the other three major regional telephone companies. Verizon Communications reported $4.1 billion in income, while SBC Communications posted $2 billion. Only Qwest Communications reported a loss, of $3.31 billion. BellSouth shares traded at $41.56 at midday Thursday. It’s 52-week high is $50.62. BELLSOUTH THE LAST Allongo’s boss, union local president Tony Dorado, is quick to point out that F. Duane Ackerman, BellSouth’s chief executive, received more than $5.1 million in compensation during fiscal year 2000. BellSouth is the last of the four major regional phone conglomerates to negotiate a contract with the CWA. In October, Qwest Communications extended its contract for two years. Earlier this year, SBC Communications extended its contract for three years. The last major strike occurred a year ago when CWA workers walked out on Verizon — formerly known as Bell Atlantic — for 18 days before a new contract could be negotiated. CWA 3122 local members plan to meet this afternoon outside the company’s Miami headquarters to show their strength in numbers, which Dorado estimates at about 4,000. They plan to wear their bright red union T-shirts and bring along a 15-foot billboard that exhorts BellSouth to sign a “fair contract,” treat its employees with dignity and have “respect for family values.” If there is a strike, it’s likely that company managers would be forced to step in to work in place of the missing employees. That could really stretch the operation thin, said Irving Miller, a labor and employment attorney at Miami-based Akerman Senterfitt. Miller isn’t representing either of the parties in this matter. Most South Florida residents aren’t likely to be affected by the strike, according to Tony Dorado. “Customers won’t see an effect unless they have to place a service order or need to change their service in some way,” he said. “Those people with normal service won’t experience any interruptions.” That’s true only if the strike is resolved quickly, said Miller. “If management steps in and doesn’t know how to do the jobs of the union workers, service will degrade,” Miller said. “In that case, they’ll quickly work to reach some kind of accord.” They won’t want to create divisions in the workplace that would be harmful to morale or their long-term business, he said. The union members hope he is right, because, as Dorado said, “Nobody wants a strike.” If the union makes good on its threat to strike, striking workers will receive only $6.15 an hour — minimum wage plus a dollar — for 10 to 30 hours’ strike work each week. At a meeting on Monday night, Allongo and Dorado preached to union executive board members and picket organizers. The group dealt with nuts-and-bolts issues: which BellSouth locations would be struck, how striking union members should handle creditors, and whether or not the union would pay for employees’ medicines during the strike. Although union members have their fingers crossed, they’ve steeled themselves for the worst. Union representative Don LaRotonda summed up the feelings of many present on Monday night: “It’s an honorable thing to fight for a living wage. It’s an honorable thing to fight for your job.”

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