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WORKERS AT TELESPECTRUM'S CHEEKTOWAGA CALL CENTER JOIN UNION

A telephone workers' union won an election at Telespectrum Worldwide Inc. in Cheektowaga Friday, creating its first foothold at the call center company.

Telespectrum workers voted 106 to 55 to join the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2213, according to the National Labor Relations Board.

The center's 225 workers handle sales calls for Bell Atlantic Corp.

Winning the election will insure the telephone company doesn't shift work from unionized locations to lower-paying contractors, union officials said.

"These are people (at Telespectrum) that are doing our work," IBEW organizer Joseph Penna said.

Telespectrum, based in King of Prussia, Pa., operates another call center on Great Arrow Drive in Buffalo with about 500 jobs.

"We're disappointed . . . but we'll do what we have to do under the law," said Jill Ward, president of Telespectrum's In-bound division.

Ward noted that the 106 workers voting for the union, while a majority in the election, were fewer than half the total eligible to vote.

The Cheektowaga center, in the AppleTree Business Park on Union Road, handles telemarketing for Bell Atlantic's high-speed Internet service. The task is similar to telemarketing performed by direct employees of Bell Atlantic in Buffalo and other upstate locations, union officials said.

"They use the same systems we do," said Brenda Kuchey, Local 2213 president.

The union represents about 500 telemarketers at Bell Atlantic's office in downtown Buffalo, business manager Mary Jo Arcuri said. Throughout upstate New York, the IBEW represents 3,000 Bell Atlantic workers.

Telespectrum workers earn a top wage of $8.75 an hour at the Cheektowaga center, compared with a top scale of $22 for unionized telemarketers at Bell Atlantic, union officials said.

The union's goal will be to gradually narrow that gap through negotiated contracts, Penna said.

"The most important thing (to workers) was having a voice," Penna said. "Then comes getting a standard of living through a decent wage."

Employment at the site is set to grow to 300 as Bell Atlantic rolls out its high-speed Internet service throughout its 13-state territory. Marketing of the "Infospeed" service will begin in the Buffalo area before April 1, the company has said.

Penna said the organizing effort was galvanized when two Telespectrum employees were fired supposedly for asking too many questions in training classes. But the campaign generated no formal charges of unfair labor practices, he said.

In meetings with employees, company representatives said that unionization was up to the workers, Penna said.

Its fairly rare for out-source call center operators like Telespectrum to be unionized, said Peter Bloom, president of consulting company COPC Inc. in Williamsville. Unions are more common in call centers operated directly by companies in the insurance, utility and other industries, he said.

Having a union is no barrier to productivity at a call center, he said. "What's important is how management and the work force work together to implement improvements," he said.

Telespectrum has 30 call centers throughout North America and Britain with 11,000 employees. It gained a presence in Western New York last year with the acquisition of IDRC Corp.

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