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Unions at Verizon are railing against cutbacks that will erase 250 jobs in Western New York, charging that the telephone network is already in shaky condition.

A layoff, called a last resort in the cutback, would be the first ever to hit unionized workers at New York's local telephone network, according to union officials. Previously, Verizon has cut jobs through attrition.

"There's bad cable, poles -- service is already beginning to decline," said Don Loretto, president of Communications Workers of America Local 1122 in Buffalo.

On the contrary, repair backlogs and customer complaints are showing improvement, Verizon spokesman Cliff Lee said.

However, Lee said, the company must shrink in size as competitors bite into the market for local phone service. Verizon lost 40,000 phone lines to competitors last month, he said.

"The telecom industry is taking a beating," Lee said. "We continue to lose tens of thousands of access lines."

Verizon plans to eliminate 3,800 jobs statewide, with a goal of 250 in Western New York. The provider of local telephone service said it is working to achieve the cuts through early retirement and other voluntary programs. But union officials expect layoffs of about 225 people will be necessary to meet the target, or about 16 percent of Verizon's blue-collar work force.

The CWA and another union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, together represent about 1,400 workers in Western New York, Loretto said, including customer service and repair workers.

The unions are under contract until August 2003, when an agreement signed after a two-week strike in 2000 expires.

The deadline for completing the job cuts wasn't announced, but union officials expect them to take effect before Jan. 1, when workers become eligible for more vacation time and other benefits.

The potential layoff would be the first ever for union workers at Verizon or its predecessor companies in New York, union officials said -- and it is already causing labor friction.

The CWA statewide unit has begun an ad campaign castigating job cuts. Ads show phone workers beneath the headline "Can you hear us now," a twist on ads for Verizon's wireless unit.

In Buffalo, union workers plan a rally sometime this week outside the telephone center at 65 Franklin St., Loretto said. Also planned are tours for state lawmakers to show telephone infrastructure that the union says is deteriorating.

The job cuts come as repair and maintenance workers are frequently putting in overtime, Loretto said. Rather than being motivated by business goals, the cuts are in retaliation for New York regulatory policy, he said. In January, the state Public Service Commission cut prices that Verizon can charge competitors for using its network.

"They're using our people as pawns in this chess game with the PSC," he said.

The lower wholesale prices mandated in January are increasing the use of Verizon's local phone network by competing companies, Lee said. "Regulatory policy is trying to reduce the size of Verizon and increase the size of our competitors," he said. "We're going to continue to get smaller while these policies are in place . . . not just the number of access lines, but the people who go with that."


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