UPDATE: Union leaders representing CenturyLink workers in 13 states have moved closer to allowing a strike, but contract talks with the telecommunications company are continuing.
The Communication Workers of America announced Thursday that its executive board has authorized the union's president to set a strike date, the final step before going on strike.
"There's nothing imminent. Our goal remains to get a good contract," union spokesman Al Kogler said.
CenturyLink and the union have been negotiating for six months on a new contract for 13,000 employees who formerly worked for Qwest Communications. It's the first time CenturyLink has negotiated with the union since it acquired Denver-based Qwest in 2011 in a deal that turned it into the nation's third-largest telephone company.
Kogler said the main sticking points in the talks include a proposed 350 percent increase in health care premiums, bringing jobs that have been moved overseas, including customer service slots, back to the U.S., and using fewer contract workers domestically, replacing them with staff workers.
CenturyLink spokesman Mark Molzen said the company's proposal would bring premiums in line with the national average over several years. He also said it has proposed returning some jobs to the United States but wouldn't say how many.
The employees covered by the contract include customer service agents, network technicians and Internet support workers in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, North Dakota, New Mexico, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
Negotiations started on Aug. 15, 2012 and, in October, 88 percent of the workers voted to authorize a strike. The executive board took its vote on Wednesday.About 100 CenturyLink workers in Montana are represented by another union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. They're not involved in the CenturyLink negotiations, although Kogler said they have previously signed contracts similar to ones that CenturyLink reached with Qwest.