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NEW YORK -- Union contracts for thousands of AT&T workers expired at midnight but officials said early Sunday that talks were continuing.

The passage of the deadline left the Communications Workers of America free to call a strike, but spokeswoman Candice Johnson says employees would report for work without a contract. She says that could change at any time.

Two separate contracts in eastern areas covering 10,000 workers expired at midnight, while talks were still going on for 33,000 other workers as midnight deadlines approached in the Midwest and West Coast.

The workers are on the shrinking local-phone and long-haul data side of the business, and located mainly in the Midwest and California.

When the last big batch of contracts was negotiated three years ago, the parties kept talking past the contract expiration, and reached agreements without a strike.

Dallas-based AT&T Inc. is the country's largest employer of unionized workers. About 140,000 of its 256,000 employees are union members.

At issue in the negotiations are job protection clauses and health care premiums and co-payments.