Qwest sides keep spirits up
Telecom says a strike wouldn't be "in anybody's interest";  union workers resolute
By Ross Wehner, Staff Writer
Denver Post
Friday, August 5, 2005

Gail Valdez was once such an enthusiastic Qwest worker that she was featured on the cover of the company's 2003 annual report and in its "Spirit of Service" television campaign.

That's not where she's at now.

Back then, Qwest had just narrowly escaped bankruptcy and Valdez and other unionized workers had accepted a wage freeze and higher health-care costs.

But this round of labor negotiations is different.

"Nobody wanted the company to go under back then," Valdez said. "But we've done without for a while. This time we will strike to stand up for what we believe."

The Communications Workers of America, which represents 25,000 Qwest workers in 13 states, is expected to announce tonight whether those workers have voted to authorize a strike.

Negotiators will use a yes vote as a bargaining chip for a better contract.  The existing labor contract expires Aug. 13, but talks could be extended past that date.

Industry analysts say a strike is unlikely because Qwest remains in a precarious financial state and continues to lose local phone lines to new cable and wireless competitors.

But Valdez and about 175 other unionized Qwest workers were frustrated Wednesday night after hearing a bargaining update at the Englewood offices of CWA Local 7777, which represents 2,800 Qwest workers in Denver.

"It's simple. The company said no," said Local 7777 president Duncan Harrington, referring to the union's demands to increase wages, maintain health-care benefits, cap mandatory overtime and limit offshoring.

Qwest chief executive Richard Notebaert said in an earnings call Tuesday that Qwest cannot afford a strike.

"Both sides have no intention of confronting a situation where there's a work stoppage," he said. "I don't think it's in anybody's interest."

But Notebaert also said the company, which has 40,000 workers across 14 states, is prepared to operate with just its 15,000 managers and nonunion workers.

Qwest managers were advised in June not to take any time off in the last two weeks of August.  Notebaert himself said he has been assigned to a splicing truck - without air conditioning - in New Mexico if a strike happens.

"I think (Qwest workers) are capable of striking," said Sue Wyman, president of the Denver Telecom Professionals, a local trade association.  "But I don't think it's the best idea for them."

Wyman said Qwest kept running in 1998 when its workers went on strike for 15 days to secure a weekly cap of eight hours of mandatory overtime per week.

"But the question becomes, how long can (managers) do it for?" she asked.

On Tuesday, many of Qwest's unionized workers stood in silence for five minutes at their job posts, but kept working, as a show of solidarity.  Many wore red union T-shirts to work Thursday.

A dozen Qwest workers also gathered Thursday to staple miniature desk placards that read: "Practice makes perfect. Striker in training."

Others were painting rocks that would later be given to managers to reinforce the union's "solid as a rock" bargaining campaign.

"Qwest managers think there will be no strike," Qwest worker Lori White said.  "They are being overly optimistic."

Qwest spokesman Bob Toevs declined to comment on the progress of the talks.

"We'll leave the agenda items up for discussion at the bargaining table," he said. "We are grateful for the strong and positive relationship that we do have with the union."

Staff writer Ross Wehner can be reached at 303-820-1503 or rwehner@denverpost.com.