Too-busy signal at BellSouth

You call BellSouth to ask a question about your bill, and next thing you know you're fending off a sales pitch for caller ID. It's an annoying exchange for more than just BellSouth's customers.

Last week, about half of the 105 BellSouth customer-service representatives based in Gainesville staged an "informational picket" (their contract won't let them strike) to protest the requirement that they must reach sales quotas in addition to answering customer-service requests. This was the third such picket in Florida.

"`BellSouth's` objectives are too high," says Mike Jones, president of the Communications Workers of America Local 3108 here in Orlando. BellSouth initiated the sales quotas in the last two years, in response to increased competition. But Jones notes that under the quotas, 83 percent of local service representatives have received unsatisfactory performance ratings from the company. "That shows it's not a people problem but a planning problem," says Jones, who notes that BellSouth's objectives can be lowered while still meeting its corporate goals. Are there plans for union action in Orlando? "Not yet," says Jones, "but there probably will be."

On another industry front, Jones has his eye on the new "one-stop shopping" concepts like BellSouth Solutions, which bundle different services such as telephone, paging and Internet into one bill with one customer-service number. "That group is nonunion," explains Jones. He sees it as part of a trend of losing work that had already been bargained for -- and traditionally held -- by unions.

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