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Strike a possibility as Verizon contract deadline nears

About 700 Verizon Communications workers in Western New York could go on strike this weekend, if the communications giant and two unions do not reach a new labor agreement.

Verizon’s contract with the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers is scheduled to expire at the end of Saturday. Talks on a new deal, taking place in Westchester County, cover about 39,000 workers from Massachusetts to Virginia. They work in Verizon’s “wireline” operations, such as its landline and high-speed FiOS Internet service.

Verizon said it needs to update elements of the labor agreement to help bring expenses in line, while the CWA said Verizon is a highly profitable company that doesn’t need concessions from workers.

It is unknown whether the unions will go on strike if a deal is not reached by the deadline, but a walkout at Verizon is not unheard of. In 2011, about 45,000 CWA and IBEW members at the company went on strike for about two weeks.

In Western New York, CWA represents about 500 workers, while the IBEW represent about 200 workers, said James Wagner, president of CWA Local 1122, one of three CWA locals representing area Verizon workers. Many of the workers are field technicians and support personnel, including customer service employees.

“Contract negotiations are ongoing,” Wagner said. “The parties appear to be far apart.” A representative of IBEW Local 2213, which is based in Syracuse and includes Buffalo in its territory, did not return messages to comment.

If a strike occurs, Verizon has trained more than 15,000 of its managers to handle work assignments in the workers’ absence, and is prepared to bring in “a few thousand other contractors” to fill the void, said Ray McConville, a Verizon spokesman. “We’re fully prepared to continue business as usual for our customers in the event there is a strike.”

“They can’t do our job,” Wagner said of the potential replacements. “No one matches the level of skill and expertise that our field techs present.”

The two sides began negotiations on June 22. Verizon wants to bring benefits costs under control, such as health care costs, McConville said. “The cost of their health care plans are very high, much higher than the average plan most American workers receive,” McConville said. “So we have to bring that in line with modern times.”

The two sides are also at odds over pensions, as well as Verizon’s flexibility to move workers within geographic areas.

The company has proposed wage hikes of 2 percent in year one, 2 percent in year two, and a $1,000 lump sum in year three of a deal. “They already have very high salaries. We are not looking to change that,” McConville said. He said the average Verizon technician in New York state earns $100,000 in annual pay, including overtime but excluding benefits.

McConville said the contract talks cover “the far less-profitable side of our business.” Verizon’s wireless operations are not part of the negotiations, although about 80 or 90 of the technicians work in that field, he said.

Wagner said that after decades of bargaining between CWA and Verizon, “we’ve secured a wage and benefit package that affords them an opportunity to own a home in any community here in Western New York, and they do. That’s at risk right now. We’re not going to apologize for that.”

Wagner noted Verizon recorded profits of about $27 billion from 2010 to 2014, and revenues of more than $100 billion last year, as evidence of the company’s prosperity. “What’s the picture need to look like for organized labor to go sit at the bargaining table with their employer where they can actually advance their cause?” he said.

Wagner said while Verizon’s wireless operations are not part of the contract talks, Verizon’s wireless network depends on a well-functioning infrastructure maintained by its wireline workers, underscoring their value to the company. He said the CWA also wants to see Verizon install its FiOS service throughout Buffalo: “We want every consumer, residence and business in this state to have access to that high-speed network,” Wagner said.