Negotiators for the Bell telephone system and the Communications Workers of America made scant progress yesterday toward averting a strike at midnight tonight.

Company spokesman Charles Dynes said he remained optimistic. But union officials described the negotiations as "the strangest" they've seen since the parties first began bargaining at the national level. They were alerting their 525,000 members to walk off the job at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, they said.

Both sides agreed that a strike would not have much impact on primary telephone services, which are highly automated or would be carried out by management personnel.

"We are not so naive as to think we could shut this industry down," said CWA spokesman Duayne Trecker. "The strike would be in part a kind of protest march, to call public attention to the fact that the company is not giving us a fair shake."

The negotiations are complicated by the fact that the telephone company, which will break up at the end of the year in a court-ordered divestiture, has uncommon divisions within its own bargaining team, union officials said. The designated presidents of what will become the new local operating companies are "showing their independence" in the negotiations, according to CWA President Glenn Watts.

The company is also bargaining with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, representing 100,000 workers, and the Telecommunications International Union, representing 50,000 workers, on a new three-year agreement.

Full-scale bargaining broke off Monday, when the unions rejected the company's proposal to limit pay increases for experienced workers to 2.7 percent a year for the first year and to freeze the wages of those at the bottom of the employment ladder.