NEW YORK, JUNE 29 -- Producers, news writers, editors and technicians went on strike just after midnight against NBC, the top-rated television network.

The strike by members of the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians (NABET), representing 2,800 of NBC's 8,000 workers, came after the company unilaterally imposed a new contract.

"We are saying goodbye to our friends. The staff is on strike," said Jim Farley, vice president of NBC Radio's news division, just after midnight. "Management will have to take over their jobs."

A five-year veteran news writer, who requested anonymity, told Reuter the mood was "pretty grim" as he and and his fellow union members left their desks and headed for the streets.

A half dozen pickets set up lines immediately around the midtown Manhattan office building that houses much of the radio division.

Strikers, carrying signs they said were left over from the last strike more than 10 years ago, said they would man picket lines 24 hours a day "for as long as it takes."

The two-year contract offers pay raises of just over 8 percent but permits the company to hire part-time employes to do work now performed by NABET members, a clause the union opposes.

Such work rules -- not the pay hike -- lie at the heart of the dispute, according to union leaders. And NABET had said it would strike if the company went ahead with its announced plan of putting the new contract into effect.

NBC implemented the contract terms at midnight after proposing them March 31. NABET employes had been working without a contract since then, according to NBC spokeswoman McClain Ramsey.

"We have people standing by. We have trained management personnel. No one wants a strike, but we are well prepared," she said.

Technicians constitute the majority of the almost 3,000 union members nationwide. About 200 NABET members are news producers and writers.

The walkout came after a 3 1/2-hour session with federal mediators ended at 5:30 p.m. yesterday, without any progress.

NABET officials blamed what they said were hardball tactics by NBC for the failure of the final session before the strike and the inability to reach agreement in the 11 weeks before.

"The company wants us out on the street," said Arthur Kent, president of the NABET local representing NBC employes.

"This is being dictated by General Electric, who wants to destroy the union despite fantastic profits at the number one network in the country," he said. The General Electric Co. owns NBC.

"There have been 11 weeks without a contract and we are implementing the contract as something you do out of last resort. We felt (this) was important to the long-term health of NBC," said network spokeswoman Ramsey.

The two sides have no immediate plans to meet again with federal mediators, according to federal mediators and spokesmen for NABET and the network.

The strike is the first for NBC since 1976 and follows bitter walkouts earlier this year by news division writers and graphic artists at Capital Cities/ABC and CBS represented by a separate union, the Writers Guild of America.