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GTE raises contract offer to bay area workers

GTE Corp. offered a bigger pay raise for nearly 6,000 workers in the Tampa Bay area as contract negotiations resumed Wednesday, but union and company negotiators remain far apart on more contentious issues concerning holidays and sick time.

GTE and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 824, which covers workers ranging from customer service representatives to repair technicians, are trying to draw up a new contract to replace a three-year pact that expired Saturday. The company and union had agreed to extend the contract a week because of a death in the family of a lead union negotiator.

Bargaining took on a renewed sense of urgency Wednesday as GTE officials made the unusual move of talking publicly about negotiations. Unlike the union, which has held pickets and discussed bargaining openly since negotiations began two months ago, the company had not commented on the progress.

"This is a continuing evolution of having a more open communication style," GTE spokesman Bill Kula said of GTE's decision to discuss negotiations.

However, union officials saw the move as a bargaining maneuver by the company to pressure the union by putting a positive spin on what they are offering.

The company upped the ante by offering workers a 9.5 percent wage increase over a 40-month period compared with the 5.4 percent initially offered. Union officials said GTE has already signed contracts with IBEW unions in other states offering 10.8 percent wage hikes. GTE's lead negotiator, Holly Parker, acknowledged there still is bargaining room.

But wages are not the union's top priority. One of the sticky issues is GTE's proposal to change the status of four holidays, including Good Friday, Veterans Day, New Year's Eve and Christmas Eve. The company has proposed making those holidays floaters, which means employees can take them as days off at other times during the year.

GTE also wants to eliminate sick pay for the first day an employee with 10 to 20 years of service misses work for each episode of illness. Currently, workers with five to 10 years of service are not paid for the first day of work they miss because of sickness unless they are hospitalized.

"This isn't like a normal negotiation," said Danny Johnson, business manager for Local 824. Company negotiators, he said, have been playing "hardball" by going public and not being flexible in their demands.

"Normally we all have the bad stuff on the bargaining table in the beginning and then we withdraw ours and they withdraw theirs and you get down to the nitty-gritty," Johnson said. "There has never been this many (issues) still hanging there."

Parker disputed Johnson's claim that GTE was tougher than in the past. "I'm still of the opinion that if rational minds will prevail, we could get this negotiated and settled by Saturday night," she said.