More than 25,000 Qwest employees, including 3,000 in Washington state, may go on strike tonight if negotiations fail to produce a contract...

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More than 25,000 Qwest employees, including 3,000 in Washington state, may go on strike tonight if negotiations fail to produce a contract before an 11:01 p.m. Pacific time deadline.


Denver-based Qwest and the Communications Workers of America (CWA) have been negotiating since June 22, but have been unable to agree on key issues, including wage increases, health-care costs and mandatory overtime.


“In seven weeks, we have made very little progress,” said Brenda Roberts, president of the CWA Local 7800, which represents 1,900 Puget Sound employees. “If things keep going the way they are going, we expect that we would go on strike.”


Qwest spokesman Bob Toevs declined to comment on negotiations, other than to say, “Qwest continues to bargain in good faith and we fully expect to reach an agreement by the deadline.”


Union workers who could potentially go on strike include call-center employees, network technicians and central-office technicians.


On Aug. 5, union members gave the union’s executive board and President Morton Bahr authorization to call a strike. A decision is expected to be made shortly after 11:01 p.m., or midnight in Denver, when the contract expires.


In order to avert a strike, the union and company will either have to come up with a contract for the members to vote on or agree to let the members continue to work under the expired contract.


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For updates: For bargaining updates, members can check the union’s Web site at www.cwa7800.org or call 206-441-9248


Qwest is the largest provider of phone service in Washington with more than 2.3 million customers and 3,000 union employees.


In the past few years, the company has suffered from a high level of debt and declining revenues, as use of telecom services shifts from traditional services to wireless and other new technologies.


The current contract was negotiated in 2003, a time when the company’s financial uncertainty was high, Roberts said. Because of that, the union agreed to a zero wage increase.


The prior contract’s negotiations, in 1998, resulted in a 15-day strike against the company, then known as US West. Roberts said the key issue then was over the number of overtime hours employees had to work.


At the time, she said employees averaged 60-hour work weeks. In the end, the company agreed to a maximum of eight overtime hours a week.


Mandatory overtime is the issue the union is fighting again. The company wants to raise it to 16 hours a week.


“It’s a family-life issue and a safety issue,” Roberts said. “If we need a strike to get … it all resolved, great. We are prepared.”


Toevs declined to comment on what issues were being negotiated. “It’s not in anyone’s interest here to go that far, which is why we are focused on talks and bargaining in good faith,” he said.


If the union were to go on strike, it would mean fewer employees to answer calls, install new lines or repair outages.


Marilyn Meehan, a spokeswoman for the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, said she expects the possible impact of a strike to be less significant to customers this time than in 1998.


Back then, there was a large backlog of installation orders and repairs. That doesn’t exist today, she said.


Still, if customers don’t get a phone installed in five business days, Qwest is obligated to give them a cellphone or a $100 credit.


Qwest’s Toevs said the company’s “goal is to preserve the highest levels of service that our customers expect from us,” he said.


In Washington, that means having the 1,100 managers work in the union members’ absence.


“I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy, but we are going to work toward that goal,” Toevs said.


Roberts said it will be difficult for the managers to maintain service.


“Customers who want to change lines or move will see delays because the technicians to provide service aren’t there,” she said.


Qwest lost $164 million on revenues of $3.5 billion in the quarter ended June 30. The company’s stock dropped 12 cents yesterday to close at $3.88.


Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283