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by Troy Graham
It is unlikely that union and CNG officials will reach an agreement on a new contract for more than 1,100 workers before a Thursday deadline, said Charlie Rittenhouse, the president of the Allegheny Mountain Gas Workers Union.
However, Rittenhouse said he will not call for a strike when the current contract expires at noon on Oct. 1.
"Everyone keeps working," he said. "But for how long you don't know."
The two sides are still haggling over issues such as job consolidation and changes in job descriptions, Rittenhouse said. Company officials have been "bringing out massive amounts of paperwork" on those issues that union officials will have to go over, Rittenhouse said.
Those issues "should have come out in the first week," he said. Rittenhouse said he would be surprised if negotiators could sort out all the proposals and reach an agreement by Thursday.
"I don't know where we'll find time," he said. "We haven't even hit length of contract or wages yet."
A spokesman for CNG said company negotiators are still confident that an agreement can be reached by Thursday.
"They're continuing to discuss proposals, and they expect to meet the Oct. 1 deadline," said CNG Spokesman Bob Fulton.
The two sides have not yet agreed to extend their talks beyond normal hours.
"It's not an around-the-clock thing," Fulton said. "That may change if need be."
Fulton refused to comment further, saying negotiators do not want to discuss the specifics of ongoing talks.
Rittenhouse, though, said he was angered by a proposed increase in medical premiums that would result in a 2 percent loss in real wages. Salaries would have to go up by 2 percent just to cover the premium increase, he said.
"Now keep in mind that the increase in the medical premiums is from a company that has had record profits for the last few years and hasn't negotiated a substantial wage increase with us since '93," Rittenhouse said.
Rittenhouse said he had hoped to come to an agreement before the deadline. In 1995, during the last round of talks, union employees worked two months without a contract.
"It's extremely stressful," he said. "Everyone's wondering if they'll get a call saying don't come to work today for one reason or another."
The union represents nearly all of CNG's union workers, except management and technicians, in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and New York.
Rittenhouse said he would not ask those employees to walk off the job Thursday if an agreement has not been reached. He refused to say how long union officials would be willing to let the employees work without a contract before considering a strike.
"If it becomes apparent that they are stalling then we'll consider our options," he said.
A federal mediator is expected to sit in on the talks today and Wednesday, Rittenhouse said. The mediator is required by law to stay apprised of the talks and encourage discussion, he said. However, because proposals on major issues such as wages have not yet been put on the table, the mediator has had little to do so far, Rittenhouse said.
"Our team certainly would like to reach a tentative agreement and they're frustrated," he said. "We'll just keep plugging away."