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Verizon strikers prepare to picket; Will target locations in Buffalo and Falls

Picketing will begin early this morning at Verizon Communications offices in downtown Buffalo and in Niagara Falls, as striking union employees entered the second day of a job walk-off over a contract dispute with the telecommunications giant.

About 1,050 local workers were among the 45,000 employees across the East Coast -- from Massachusetts to Washington, D.C. -- who began the strike after their contract with Verizon expired late Saturday.

Wearing bright red T-shirts, dozens of workers rallied Sunday afternoon outside a Verizon Wireless store on Walden Avenue, and more rallies were being planned at other Verizon retail outlets, said James Wagner, president of Communications Workers of America Local 1122, which represents about 550 employees in Buffalo and the immediate suburbs.

CWA Locals 1115 and 1117, as well as International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2213, also are part of the strike.

Picketing was scheduled to start at 6:30 a.m. today outside the Verizon Franklin Street Central Office, 65 Franklin St., and at a Niagara Falls office on 574 Portage Road.

The contract covers workers in Verizon's landline and wire divisions, including field technicians, central office technicians, dispatchers and facility assistants.

Retail employees inside Verizon Wireless stores are not involved.

The bargaining units say the company is attempting to freeze pension benefits, cut paid sick leave and have employees pay a portion of monthly health care premiums that could cost up to $6,800 per employee. Verizon also sought to outsource work to other countries, according to union officials. Contract talks started June 22.

"They haven't moved off of any of their retrogressive demands," said Wagner, who called the company's stance at the table "surface bargaining."

"Verizon's way of negotiating is their way or the highway," he said. "Our bargaining rights are under attack, and we're not going to let it happen here in Western New York."

A bargaining session was scheduled in Rye at 2 p.m. Sunday, but Verizon officials didn't show up, said Wagner. But Verizon spokesman John Bonomo disputed that any formal bargaining meeting was scheduled Sunday and said the company was eager to get back to negotiations.

Verizon officials said Sunday they activated a contingency plan to "ensure customers experience limited disruption in service during this time."

Over the past few months, the company trained tens of thousands of management employees, retirees and others to fill the roles and responsibilities of the striking workers.

"We feel that we're 100 percent prepared," said Bonomo.

Marc C. Reed, Verizon's executive vice president of human resources, said in a prepared statement that the company would continue to try to reach a new contract "that reflects today's economic realities in a our wireline business."

"It's also our intent that under a new contract, Verizon employees will continue to receive competitive pay and benefits programs," Reed added.

The company wants changes in the contract because it says its wireline business has been in decline for more than a decade, as more people switch to using cellphones exclusively. It had 25 million landlines at the end of the second quarter, down from 26 million at the end of 2010, and has been selling off some landlines to other phone companies.

Union officials argued that Verizon's demands were an attack on middle-class workers and come on the heels of $22.5 billion in profits for the company over the past 4 1/2 years.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.