Friday, May 10, 2002

Bell, union still negotiating

Health care discussed as Saturday deadline looms

By Mike Boyer,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Who pays for rising health-care costs is a major stumbling block as contract talks between Cincinnati Bell and the Communications Workers of America face a midnight Saturday deadline.

        The specifics of the talks between the phone company and CWA Locals 4400 and 4401, jointly, aren't being revealed by either side. The talks began in March.

        But union officials say the company has asked that employees pay a portion of rising health-care insurance premiums.

        Cincinnati Bell now pays all the CWA employees' monthly health insurance premiums. Employees make co-payments for doctor visits and prescriptions.

        The CWA represents about 2,000 Bell employees including operators, clerical workers and linemen.

        “Health-care costs are the most problematic employment expense the company faces because we have no control łover it,” said Tressie Long, spokeswoman for the unit of Broadwing Inc.

        Greg Stall, secretary-treasurer for Local 4400, said company officials have told the union that its health-care expenses were $5 million over budget last year and that the company couldn't afford to absorb those costs.

        Ms. Long said she couldn't confirm the figure but said the company has seen a 15 percent increase in health-care costs in the last year.

        The company presented an economic package covering wages, benefits and pensions in negotiations this week, according to the union's Web site.

        “We have made some progress on a variety of small issues, but all of the key issues remain unresolved,” the union told members.

        If there is a walkout, Ms. Long said, it should have little impact on most customers. As a contingency plan, most non-union employees of Cincinnati Bell and Broadwing have been trained in key functions, she said.

        But some things such as new line installations and response time on customer service calls could be affected, she said.

        In the last three contract negotiations, company and union officials have agreed to “stop the clock” before the deadline and continued talks until a new agreement is hammered out.

        “We're open to anything that needs to be done to get a contract signed,” Mr. Stall said. “But we're ready to strike, if that's the last option.”


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