US WEST union members walked off the job one minute after midnight Sunday morning, as a strike deadline passed without a contract agreement.

"We're dumbfounded," said Michael Frandsen, US WEST spokeman in Salt Lake City. "The union appears to be turning its back on one of the largest pay and benefits offers in the industry.""It's official. We are on strike," said Linda Johnson, executive vice president of the Union Local 7704 in Salt Lake City. "We were not able to get the negotiations going and we're pulling our people as we speak - (first) our operator services and then we're going to pull our people at 205 E. Second South," the data control center.

The company wants to take back employee advances, union members charged. Company proposals are designed to streamline US WEST in an era of fierce competition, said management.

Meeting with a federal mediator, the sides were negotiating in Denver against a midnight expiration of their contract.

Of 3,000 US WEST employees in Utah, 2,300 are union members who are striking. The rest are management, who were waiting by their telephones and pagers, ready to put in extra hours of work to keep the system functioning.

With the strike, basic telephone service and emergency 911 calls should remain uninterrupted. But delays could come in such areas as directory assistance, checking the status of bills and new phone installation.

At the Utah headquarters of the Communications Workers of America Local 7704, the mood was upbeat late Saturday afternoon. About 30 union members were counting down the hours to midnight at the office, 939 S. Edison St. (140 East), some sitting in plastic chairs in the parking lot near a blazing barbecue.

Most wore T-shirts, on the backs of which was a drawing of a rattlesnake with the message, "If provoked I will STRIKE."

"It's too bad the company's trying to take back improvements that we made over the years," said Nick Evans, a cable splicer. He said a strike would put a drastic dent in his income.

"I dread it. I think most of the employees dread it."

Then why strike? "We don't want to lose the things we've worked so hard to get in past contracts. Many of the company's current proposals are very retrogressive - we've had 'em for years, many of the things they want to take away now," Evans said.

Inside the office, Elisa Ontiveros sat with two other employees at a table loaded with scores of picket signs. "I made 160," she commented.

A big issue is mandatory overtime, she said. Workers don't like it "because we have families at home. We have small children, and I want to be there for them. I have a life outside of US WEST."

By walking off the job, strikers will get $200 a week compensation after 15 days, in the form of pay for picket duty. Ontiveros said they need only to picket four hours a week to collect the money.

"It'll be hard" to cope with that kind of reduction in income, but accepting US WEST's proposals would be harder, she added.

"The last indication was that they were still trying to put a percent of the health care back on the employees," said Johnson. She was referring to a proposal that employees pay a portion of the health insurance premium that covers their dependents.

Frandsen was annoyed that the insurance issue keeps coming up.

Early in the negotiations, which have been going on two months, the company proposed that employees pay 15 percent of the insurance premiums for coverage of dependents. But several days ago, he said, US WEST shelved that idea.

"They're being disingenuous" in "pretending" that the issue is still a sticking point, he said of union officials.

A new plan has been on the table "long enough for the union reps to know better. The new proposal is US WEST will pay the entire premium for both employees and their dependents. In other words, it's free."

Frandsen said the company's plans would "ratchet up" customer service. "You've got to do that in this era of extreme competition."

He doesn't like hearing union officials say US WEST proposals would cause employees' pay to drop.

"I want to emphasize again this is simply not the case. The current base pay of an employee's not at risk. We want to standardize this (a proposal called pay for performance) for new employees.

"But of course, new employees are willingly joining the company." Besides, he said, employees should see "pay for performance" incentives as an opportunity.

Another sticking point, according to Frandsen, is a proposal by managers known as "service monitoring," in which telephone conversations between employees and customers would be recorded.

"That's good in two ways," he said. "One, it provides protection to the employee. If there's any question as to what took place in the conversation, it's recorded." The other way is that it is a way to give feedback to employees in order to improve service, he said.

"Our focus throughout all these negotiations has been the customer," Frandsen said.

"We've got a bunch of managers right now with pagers, and they're ready to respond at a moment's notice to be ready to fill in critical positions and make sure critical operations continue."

They are glad to do it, he said. They are prepared to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week because "US WEST is providing an essential service."