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The contract between the Communication Workers of America and US WEST runs out at midnight Saturday, but both sides say that even though ongoing talks are proceeding slowly, they're hoping a contract can be ironed out before the deadline.

"We're still pretty confident we can reach an agreement with the company. However, we're going to make sure that the issues that are important to our members are going to be addressed and that there's some kind of agreement on those," said William Thornburg, assistant to the vice president in District 7 out of the CWA's Englewood, Colo., office.US WEST Communications covers a 14-state region. The CWA's District 7 represents approximately 38,000 US WEST employees in that area. Of those, about 1,600 are Utah workers.

Thornburg said wages remain a key issue as well as the company's efforts to hire outside contractors to perform certain jobs. Another concern is job security and how employees will be treated in this new technological era when communication firms are downsizing, consolidating functions and centralizing business in certain cities or states.

"With all the re-engineering, we have all those different job designs," Thornburg said. Union officials are concerned about "the way people are treated in their entitlements as far as whether they basically want to take early retirement or move to new center cities and maintain a job." The union also is concerned about "what is that job going to look like and what is the appropriate rate of pay going to be? Functions are being combined and we're doing a lot of work on this," he said.

"The contracting out of our work that the company does is a big issue also. They've basically cut service to the bone and not left enough technicians and service representatives to meet the needs of US WEST's telephone customers. The customers are seeing a decline in service because the people just aren't there to do the work," Thornburg said. Union officials are wary of US WEST's efforts to make customers happy by hiring outside contractors, he said.

However, even though the CWA workers have voted to authorize a strike if necessary, Thornburg expects a contract can be finalized by Saturday night.

"We're bargaining and we're making progress," Thornburg said.

Duane Cooke, US WEST company spokesman for Utah, shared that sentiment.

"We're bargaining in good faith, and we're confident all the issues can be resolved prior to the expiration of the contract," said Cooke, who declined to discuss details of the talks.

"We're not discussing specific issues in public at this time because we want to leave the discussion of those issues at the bargaining table," Cooke said. "We see bargaining as an opportunity to create a strategic labor agreement that will help US WEST Communications do several things: improve customer service, continue to be competitive, meet the expectations of customers and shareholders, and continue to be a good place to work.

"Overall, we're interested in bargaining a contract that gives us the flexibility to operate in our competitive environment," Cooke said.

Cooke said company officials don't anticipate a strike, but, "in the event of a work stoppage, we have a plan where management employees would do the work."

Basic service would continue uninterrupted, although there might be some delays in such things as new service connections. "We'd be doing our best to keep disruptions to a minimum," he said.