DENVER — Qwest Communications and its largest employee union have started negotiations with the hope of agreeing on a new contract ahead of two political conventions that are counting on the company for telecommunications services.

A contract covering about 21,000 workers is scheduled to expire Aug. 16, a little more than a week before the Democratic National Convention in Denver. The Republican National Convention begins Sept. 1 in St. Paul, Minn.

Denver-based Qwest committed $6 million worth of cash and in-kind services to each convention to provide telephone, Internet and data services.

Qwest is the primary telephone service provider in 14 states, including Utah. It also operates a nationwide fiber optic network.

The company said it has plans in place to cover operations in its vast territory and the two conventions in the event of a strike.

Qwest spokesman Bob Toevs said contingency plans are standard procedure during contract talks and noted that they have a good working relationship with the union. Communications Workers of America spokesman Al Kogler said the union wants to get a deal before the contract ends.

"Our attitude right now is we're working hard, hoping to get this done before the expiration date and come out with a contract that both sides can feel good about," he said.

Representatives of both conventions declined specific comment on the negotiations other than to say preparations for telecommunications services are under way at both sites.

Qwest Communications International Inc. has improved its financial condition since the current contract was negotiated in 2005, although it faces some hurdles in shifting focus from traditional phone service to bundling Internet, video and voice services.

The key issues are wages, health-care benefits and some scheduling concerns, Kogler said.

The union and the company have reached agreements on contracts without work stoppages since 2001, the year after Qwest acquired the former Baby Bell US WEST Inc.

"Obviously, Qwest has got some challenges," he said. "We also believe that they're now showing a profit. They've given their new CEO a pretty good package."

Chief Executive Officer Edward Mueller, who joined the company in August, received a compensation package valued at $17.4 million last year.

Qwest was embroiled in a multibillion-dollar scandal that forced the company to restate $2.2 billion of revenue after federal regulators claimed Qwest falsely reported fiber-optic capacity sales as recurring instead of one-time revenue between April 1999 and March 2002.

The CWA represents Qwest employees in 13 states stretching from Minnesota to Washington and south to Phoenix. Qwest employees in Montana are represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.