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Qwest, workers reach tentative accord

By Leslie Brooks Suzukamo

Knight Ridder Newspapers

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Financially troubled phone company Qwest Communications International on Friday reached a tentative two-year labor agreement that offers no raises for 27,000 employees in its 14-state service area.

The Communications Workers of America called the agreement a victory nonetheless because the union kept fully funded health care benefits for its workers and Qwest retirees. Fees, such as co-pays for office visits and prescription drugs, will go up, however.

Representatives for Denver-based Qwest and the CWA, who hammered out the pact well ahead of the Aug. 17 expiration for the current contract, said it will help ensure the Baby Bell's survival. The company narrowly escaped bankruptcy in 2002 but still carries $20 billion in debt and is under federal scrutiny for financial practices that forced it to scrub its books of more than $2 billion in revenue over several years. Qwest expects to complete a final audit of its books in July.

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"I keep telling everybody you can't squeeze blood from a turnip," said Ken "Casey" Cusick, executive vice president of CWA Local 7214 in Duluth, Minn. CWA local presidents from Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth were in Denver being briefed on the agreement and unavailable for comment Friday.

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