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Pickets target Verizon locations; Vow fight to maintain standard of living

Dozens of striking Verizon Communications workers hit the streets of Western New York on Monday, clad in red and picketing Verizon offices and stores after company and union representatives failed to reach a contract deal Saturday night.

"Every one of us out here wants to be at work, but every one of us also wants to maintain our standard of living, and that's what Verizon wants to erode," said Rick Ryan, a telecommunications technician. "It's exactly what has happened to the rest of the middle class across the country. They want to take away our bargaining ability and send our jobs overseas. We're not going to let them do it."

Workers on strike can file for unemployment benefits, but said they don't expect to receive their first checks for at least a month. Pickets were upbeat, cheering as honking cars passed and grateful for coffee and doughnuts delivered by workers from BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York.

"There is great camaraderie. These are great people, and they do a tremendous job," said Donna Vacinek, a customer service representative and union officer. "Everything they have they've worked for, and these are the benefits the company is trying to take away."

Verizon wants concessions on more than 100 contract items, union representatives said, including wages, pensions, medical benefits, work rules, job security, overtime and sick pay. The affected workers are field technicians, in-office technicians, customer service representatives and dispatchers who work on the company's landline and FiOS cable networks.

About 1,050 members of Locals 1122, 1115 and 1117, Communications Workers of America, and Local 2213, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, are on strike in Western New York, along with 44,000 from Massachusetts to Virginia. Verizon's wireless division is not involved in the contract talks.

Members marched near the entrances of the company's Franklin Street offices, where they discouraged replacement workers from entering.

Verizon said that, since the CWA voted last month to authorize a strike, it has been preparing a pool of replacement workers consisting of managers, retirees and others. It did not disclose how many replacement workers it deployed.

"Today is the first business day, and we feel 100 percent prepared. We always knew a strike was an eventuality, and we have been training people the last couple of months," said John Bonomo, a Verizon spokesman.

Network systems are more automated now than during past strikes, Bonomo said, and many of the replacement workers already are familiar with Verizon's systems, so the company is confident customers will not notice any interruption.

But technicians on the picket line said customers definitely will feel the effects of the strike.

"There's no way they can do our jobs the way we do them," said Joann Farkas, a customer service representative who said she took more than 1,000 calls a day in the company's directory assistance office.

Lori Speciale, a customer service representative and union officer, said customers can expect subpar service and delays.

"The network is very complicated. These unskilled contractors are going to result in disrupted service and unhappy customers," she said. "We built the network. We are the network."

Workers also picketed Verizon's Amherst offices, a Verizon Wireless store on Walden Avenue in Cheektowaga and several local work centers and field garages.

Two Verizon workers reported being hit by the car of one worker trying to cross the picket line at the company's Amherst offices on Millersport Highway. Police said the car was idling through the driveway trying to enter the parking lot when two pickets blocking the path were struck.

No charges have been filed against the driver, who said pickets damaged his vehicle as he was attempting to enter. The pickets refused treatment at the scene, police said. But the union said they were treated in a hospital and released.

Verizon officials called the police several times locally and at other national locations to prevent pickets from kicking cars and to keep them out of restricted areas, Bonomo said.

"We've had an ongoing problem where [pickets] are illegally preventing managers from getting into parking areas, preventing field workers from picking up tools at garages," he said.

Verizon officials said Monday night that the company had obtained a statewide injunction against illegal picketing activities in Pennsylvania and was pursuing similar action elsewhere. The company also reported fiber-optic lines being deliberately cut downstate and in other states.

Mark Manna, an Amherst Town Board member and vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, stopped by the Franklin Street picket line to support the striking employees.

"[Verizon executives] are the poster child for corporate greed," he told pickets. "In this economy, to take a position against the people that built their profits is immoral."

Neither side gave any indication Monday when talks might resume.

"We're ready, willing and eager to start talking again," Bonomo said. "They are some very contentious issues, but the only way to get everyone back to work is to talk about them and come up with a workable solution."

Neither side ventured a guess as to how long the strike would last, but pickets agreed they were in it for the long haul.

"As long as it takes, whatever it takes," said Kimberly Brinson, a dispatcher.