Tentative Deal Reached in Verizon Strike

While nearly two-thirds of the 87,000 striking Verizon Communications employees returned to work today after unions reached a tentative agreement, a backlog of new service requests could mushroom if a formal deal isn’t reached soon, a Verizon spokesman said.

That’s because fall is a traditionally busy time for new phone line requests, with students moving into dorms and apartments. Additionally, families terminate phone services for summer homes.

“The demand for new service [during the fall] is phenomenal,” said Jim Smith, a Verizon spokesman.

About 200,000 orders for new service already remain pending as the strike officially continues. Verizon workers have focused on repairs during the past two weeks, not installations, Smtih said.

During a press briefing earlier today, Lawrence T. Babbio Jr., vice chairman and president of Verizon, said there are about 80,000 service “troubles” outstanding. Half of those problems are reports of no service and the rest cover minor service glitches including static, Smith said. Verizon serves a total of 40 million lines or customers.

Frank Paxton, a vice president of CWA Local 1105 in New York, estimated it would take two months for workers in his region to catch up on the backlog of orders and repairs tallied up during the strike.

Smith estimated it could take three to four weeks to catch up on pending service orders.

Verizon spokesman Eric Rabe said problems with directory assistance should clear up almost immediately.

Negotiations Continue

On Sunday, a new, tentative three-year contract was struck with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and one of two bargaining units for the Communications Workers of America, or CWA, covering employees in New York and New England. The two represent 50,000 Verizon workers.

Talks with another bargaining unit for the CWA, covering employees in the Mid-Atlantic states, are continuing.

The unions have been striking for two weeks, and the walkout has affected 25 million phone users on the East Coast. Union negotiators are seeking the right to unionize the growing wireless work force at the telecommunications giant.

Workers to Get Stock Options

The tentative agreement would replace contracts that expired August 6, and includes a 12 percent pay raise. Job security and benefits also are expected to improve, according to the tentative deal.

The new contract also allows workers for the first time to get stock options. And customer representatives working in call centers will be allowed 30 minutes each day when they do not have to take calls, an increase over previous contracts. The two sides also found common ground over ensuring that union members can work in emerging divisions, such as high-speed Internet connections.

While union negotiators last week accused Verizon of stalling the talks, Smith today said it took time to reach a tentative agreement that would satisfy union representatives and give Verizon the flexibility to remain competitive.

“The proposed agreement gives Verizon the flexibility we need to thrive in a highly competitive national marketplace,” said Babbio.

Union leaders also expressed optimism. “I am proud of our members for holding strong during these long and difficult negotiations,” said Myles Calvey, chairman of IBEW System Council T-6, a group of ten local unions representing some 13,000 Verizon workers in five New England states. Calvey’s statement appeared on the union’s Web site (see Web links).

“Through our unity and determination we were able to win a fair agreement that protects our members’ job security and gives nonunion workers an opportunity to join our union,“ Calvey added.

Verizon subscribers most affected by the strike were New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia.

ABCNEWS Radio, ABCNEWS.com’s Heesun Wee and the Associated Press contributed to this report.