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Strike in the balance at Verizon

Union leaders are trying to position a threatened strike at Verizon Communications on Wednesday as a traditional fight between a greedy corporation and its workers, but the battle also reflects changing dynamics that continue to challenge organized labor.

Nearly 40,000 workers at Verizon – including about 500 in Western New York – would go on strike as of 6 a.m. Wednesday if the telecommunications giant doesn’t negotiate a new contract with members of two major labor unions that say the company isn’t bargaining fairly.

The company said that almost all of the affected workers are in the landline portion of the company that accounts for less than 30 percent of the company’s revenue. Changing the labor contracts is part of modernizing the company, Verizon officials said.

The strike would affect 29,000 members of the Communications Workers of America and 10,000 members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, who staff a range of facilities from Virginia to Massachusetts, including call center staff, technicians, installers and other jobs, according to union officials.

Christopher M. Shelton, president of the CWA, said that the unions have been negotiating with New York City-based Verizon for 10 months, since last June, with little success. The current contract expired Aug. 1, and union members first authorized their leadership to call a strike at that time. Besides the active workers, about 89,000 retirees are also affected by the contract talks.

According to the unions, Verizon wants to “gut job security protections,” send more work to contractors elsewhere in the country, outsource jobs offshore to places like Mexico and the Philippines, and deploy technicians away from home as needed for as long as two months “without seeing their families.”

But to Verizon, which says that only 36,000 workers are covered under the contracts, the fight is more about the need to change how it operates and spends money in a once-core business that now comprises just a fraction of its bottom line. More than 99 percent of the affected employees – all except for about 100 Verizon Wireless technicians in New York City – work in the traditional landline business, which contributed 29 percent of total revenues last year but less than 7 percent of operating income. And their current wage and benefits package averages more than $130,000 a year.

Verizon officials said their goal in negotiations is to “modernize legacy contractual provisions, some put in place decades ago,” including by gaining more flexibility to “manage and utilize its workforce” to lower costs and serve customers better.

The company said that it is “fully prepared to serve its customers” in case of a walkout.

W. Robert Mudge, president of Verizon’s wire line network operations, said the company has trained thousands of non-union employees “to carry out virtually every job function handled by our represented workers – from making repairs on poles to responding to inquiries in our call centers.”

If workers do strike, it would represent the third walkout at Verizon in the last five negotiating efforts. The last one was during the previous bargaining round in 2011, and lasted two weeks.