With striking workers picketing outside, the top boss of US WEST told a roomful of state and local government leaders Friday morning that the telephone company needs their help to make money in a competitive industry.

Sol Trujillo, US WEST president and chief executive officer, spoke to an audience that included legislators, mayors, city managers and US WEST executives as more than 100 striking workers surrounded the hotel.Carrying signs such as "SOL: Sold Out Loyalty," the demonstraters had hoped to confront Trujillo as he entered the hotel. But the Denver-based official stayed over at the hotel Thursday night and avoided the picket line.

Trujillo spoke of the strike at the beginning of his presentation Friday, describing it as a "topical issue" that he hopes will be resolved soon. He told the audience he had not seen the demonstrators.

US WEST was well aware of them, however. A sign welcoming the company to the hotel was removed from in front of the small conference room and replaced by a security guard.

Company executives checked the crowds outside the hotel several times, receiving reports from their security that the numbers did not come anywhere near the 1,000 demonstrators they'd feared.

Workers like Kim Petersen, a cable repairman, walked the line to "let him know how we feel." Petersen, who was accompanied by his 9-year-old daughter, said he wanted Trujillo to see the workers out in force.

Strikers complained that by arriving the night before, Trujillo missed the pickets arrayed outside the Little America. Said Mark Durrant, a striking technician, "He should have at least faced us out here."

Inside the hotel conference room, the audience ate eggs and fruit before the speech. Among those attending was state Sen. Ed Mayne, D-West Valley City, head of the Utah AFL-CIO.

Mayne told a reporter he'd received a thumbs-up from workers on the picket line outside. Also in the audience was former Salt Lake Organizing Committee President Tom Welch. US WEST is a sponsor of the 2002 Winter Games.

Trujillo spoke for about a half-hour, focusing on the company's efforts to remain competitive as other telecommunications companies around the country merge.

"We need some help," he told the lawmakers and local government leaders from Salt Lake City, Sandy, Bountiful, West Valley City, Provo, Park City, Layton, Midvale and other areas.

"We're not looking for anything special other than to take the handcuffs off and let us compete," Trujillo said. Those "handcuffs" include rate regulation by the state, he said.

"We need earnings freedom," he said. That means not allowing the state to regulate the company's rate of return by disallowing advertising and other costs when calculating how much they should make.

Trujillo detailed some of the new innovations that US WEST is already introducing in other markets and hopes to bring to Utah, including having a single telephone number serve both home and wireless telephone.

In a Deseret News interview, Trujillo emphasized that his trip to Utah was scheduled before the strike and that his address to state and local leaders was not prompted by the labor trouble.

Trujillo said the main message he would like to give Utahns about the strike is, "I think both parties are working hard at trying to reach agreements that help us position our company for the future, so that we can serve our customers better, our employees can have good-quality jobs, and ultimately that our shareowners benefit as well. But more importantly, it's all centered around our customers."

On the issue of forced overtime, one of the main objections that strikers are citing, Trujillo said the issue concerns management as well as the union. "I believe there are solutions to this, and I'd like to see them dealt with on the (bargaining) table."

Responding to a charge by the union that Canadian strikebreakers were encouraged to lie to immigration authorities and say they were coming to the United States "on holiday," he said he was not aware of the allegation but that every contract requires companies working with US WEST to obey all laws.