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Trying to cope with Verizon strike

The threat of a strike at Verizon Communications became a reality for 39,000 of its workers Wednesday – and with that came the question of how long they will go without paychecks.

As striking workers walked the picket line with placards and waved to motorists honking their support, they also confronted the possibility of a drawn-out struggle with the communications giant.

Many veteran Verizon workers have gone through strikes at the company before, as recently as a two-week walkout in 2011, and they have been saving money where they can.

“You’ve got to be ready,” said Marty Wallace, a lineman who has been with the company for 25 years. “You never know what’s going to happen. You don’t know if it’s going to be a day or a week or a month, or six months – you have no idea.”

Workers interviewed on the picket line Wednesday said they viewed going on strike as a last resort. But they also said they wanted to stand up against the threat of jobs being sent overseas or contracted out. They are part of Verizon’s “wireline” workforce, including its landline phone and Internet service workers. The 725 striking workers in the Buffalo area are represented by the Communications of Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The possibility of a strike has loomed since last August, when the workers’ contract with Verizon expired. Workers have had ample time to consider how they would get by without steady Verizon paychecks.

“If you’re not prepared by now, you’re in trouble,” Wallace said. “You’ve always got to look ahead and see what’s coming down the road and prepare for it.”

“It’s not like it’s the first time we’ve been through this,” said Todd Bartoo, of Hamburg, a field technician and a 20-year employee.

James M. Wagner, president of Local 1122, CWA, said members’ strike benefits would kick in on the strike’s 15th day. He declined to say what members would receive, but said they would receive increases on day 30 and day 57 if the strike continued that long.

“We have done the preparatory work over our years, our history of battling this employer,” Wagner said. “We’ve got a strong defense fund in place, and we’re going to make sure our members are taken care of.”

The striking workers can also file for state unemployment benefits, but not until seven weeks have passed, he said.

Wagner said the union had urged workers to prepare financially in case of a strike.

“The members have worked for this employer for 20 years, and every three years, we’re in a fight,” he said. “You’ve got responsible adults in the communities they live in. They raise families; they pay taxes. They’re Little League coaches; they’re community activists.”

Brian Kennedy, of Gowanda, a fleet mechanic, has been with Verizon for two years and had been preparing for the prospect of a strike.

“I’ve been putting off home repairs and vacations and things like that since last August, actually before then,” Kennedy said.

Lisa Robinson, of Buffalo, a 30-year employee, said that she has tried to save up but that it’s not easy.

“I try to prepare for it, but I have two young kids in high school, and I have a lot of bills, and I put away what little I can in case this happens,” she said. “But it is a hardship for my family and everybody here.”

She added, “I anticipate this one to be a very long strike because it’s not about what it used to be, wages and benefits. It’s about job security.”

Robinson worries about her job being outsourced, but despite the labor disruptions she has endured, she still hopes to retire from Verizon: “I’ve put in too much of my time and energy into a corporation that I always thought I’d be able to retire from, which may now not happen.”

Verizon spokesman Raymond McConville said the company was prepared for the walkout, having trained thousands of non-union employees to fill in for those on the picket line, from Massachusetts to Virginia.

“We activated our contingency plan, and we’re focused on serving customers,” he said.

No new talks between the two sides have been scheduled.

McConville said the “ball’s in (the unions’) court” to resume bargaining. Verizon has said that it was open to a federal mediator joining the talks; the CWA has called for Verizon to return to the bargaining table.

email: mglynn@buffnews.com