NEW YORK (AP) _ Tens of thousands of telephone workers began a strike early today that could leave millions of callers from Maine to Virginia on hold.

Negotiators representing 73,000 workers failed to reach an agreement before a midnight deadline, and employees prepared to picket at Bell Atlantic offices up and down the east coast, union officials said.

Bell South reached a tentative settlement with its union employees, saving callers in the southeastern United States from possible service disruptions, said Candice Johnson, spokeswoman for the Communications Workers of America.