Qwest preps for walkout
Managers warned they may have to assume jobs if pact not reached
By Tom McGhee, Staff Writer
Denver Post
Friday, June 10, 2005

Qwest has told its managers they may have to take on the jobs of union employees if contract negotiations break down this summer and workers strike.

The Denver-based telecommunications company informed its 16,000 managers in an e-mail Thursday that they won't be allowed time off in the last half of August if a contract agreement has not been reached.

The contract with the Communications Workers of America District 7, which has about 25,000 members employed by Qwest, expires at midnight Aug. 13.  Talks are scheduled to begin June 22.

The company's health plan will be the most contentious item in bargaining sessions, predicted LeRoy Christensen, a member of the CWA's bargaining committee.

The present contract calls for Qwest to pay 100 percent of CWA members' coverage.  But companies throughout the nation are cutting back on the amount they contribute to health plans, and Christensen expects Qwest to try to do the same.

"We know they will be looking to have us share in some of the increased cost, and we are going to be resisting that," he said.

The union also will ask for an approximately 3 percent raise, he said.

Qwest spokesman Bob Toevs said the notification doesn't mean the company expects a strike.  But he said keeping managers on call will assure that if there is a walkout, Qwest can continue to serve its customers.  He called the preparations standard operating procedure.

Union workers include installation and repair technicians, service representatives and others.

It will be the first time the full CWA contract has been negotiated since the union sat down with US West in 1998.  Those talks broke down, and there was a two-week walkout.  Qwest acquired US West in 2000 in a $48 billion deal.

Christensen said he doesn't expect a strike.

"We will be ready for it.  You never say never.  But it is not something I expect we will have to do," he said.

Qwest, a company with a market value of $6.8 billion, is mired in $17 billion of debt and is losing customers to wireless companies, cable providers and other competitors.

Janco Partners analyst Donna Jaegers said she expects both sides to work to avoid a strike.  The CWA is aware of the financial challenges Qwest faces and is unlikely to make outrageous demands, she said.

"I imagine we will hear some rhetoric on either side, but I think they will work together," she said.

Staff writer Tom McGhee can be reached at 303-820-1671 or tmcghee@denverpost.com.