A union that represents about 1,800 CenturyLink workers in Minnesota said it is one step closer to a strike, while the company said it “remains optimistic” that the two parties will agree on a fair contract.

The Communications Workers of America (CWA) began negotiations with Monroe, Louisiana-based CenturyLink in August. The union represents former employees of Qwest, which merged with CenturyLink in 2011.

In October, the CWA said that more than 88 percent of its voting members approved a strike if a “fair contract” could not be reached with their employer.

The former four-year contract that about 13,000 workers in Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa, Nebraska, and several other states extending to the west coast had been working under expired that same month without the two sides striking a new deal, but the two parties agreed to a day-to-day extension of the former contract as negotiations continued. Of the roughly 1,800 Minnesota workers covered by the contract, approximately 1,600 are based in the Twin Cities.

The employees have been working under the day-to-day contract extension for months, but the CWA announced Thursday that it has taken another step toward a strike. The union’s strike process involves three phases: authorization by the union’s members (which occurred in October), authorization by the union’s executive board (which was granted Wednesday), and finally, the setting of a strike date by the union’s president.

Union spokesman Al Kogler told Twin Cities Business Thursday that the union felt it was “time to take the next step for strike authorization.” Negotiating a new contract remains the union’s priority, and a strike is not inevitable, but “quite frankly, [the negotiations] haven’t been very productive,” he said.

“At this point, it doesn’t mean a strike is imminent,” Kogler said. “But it’s not a bluff,” and the union “hopes it will get CenturyLink’s attention.”

In order for the union’s president to authorize a strike, the CWA must first terminate the current contract extension, which includes a “no-strike clause,” Kogler said. But given the day-to-day nature of the extension, the union could move quickly to execute a strike if it decides to do so.

CenturyLink spokesman Mark Molzen told Twin Cities Business that the company “continues to believe that the negotiating table is the best place to resolve issues,” and the two parties were in negotiations on Thursday.

CenturyLink “remains optimistic that we’re going to reach a fair and equitable agreement,” he added.

Kogler pointed to the same sticking points that the union has cited since last fall: Workers under the current contract cover about 7 percent of their health care premiums, but CenturyLink has proposed boosting that share more than three-fold, he said. The union is also concerned with the offshoring of jobs.

Regarding health care, Molzen said that the company’s proposal would gradually increase CWA workers’ costs “to bring them more in line with national averages” and with the majority of the company’s other employees. With respect to the offshoring of jobs, Molzen said that CenturyLink has offered a proposal involving bringing more jobs back to the United States, although he declined to share additional details about the proposal.

“We remain hopeful we’ll be able to work with the union to bridge our differences,” Molzen said.

The union members also authorized a strike in 2008, during the last round of contract negotiations, but a strike did not occur. Rather, the previous contract was extended through the ratification of a new deal, according to Kogler.

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