Verizon Strikers Weather Storm

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Verizon StrikersAround 40 red-shirted, poncho-wearing strikers stood in the pouring rain in Lower Manhattan on Tuesday, the third day of the Verizon strike. Collective bargaining negotiations broke down over the weekend, after representatives from the Communication Workers of America and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers refused Verizon's proposed cutbacks. When contracts expired Saturday at midnight, 45,000 workers walked out, and took up rotating shifts at picket lines from Virginia to Massachusetts.

"It's my third tour of duty," said Troy Woodson, a Verizon employee of 22 years, from under his umbrella. Two strikers even set up lawn chairs in the flooded gutter, facing Verizon headquarters' regal art deco facade.

According to strikers, Verizon is demanding an excessive reduction in benefits, including a pension freeze, a cut in paid disability leave, and $100 monthly healthcare contributions. This has particularly offended some New York strikers, whose West Street offices were badly damaged on 9/11. "The next day people came in," said Jackie McLaughlin, who has worked for Verizon for 28 and a half years. "And during the blackout that followed, we made sure your landlines were up."

According to McLaughlin, a number of Verizon employees have contracted cancer since then, which she believes is linked to working three blocks from Ground Zero.

Only Verizon's unionized traditional telephone workers are on strike, and not the more profitable non-union wireless division. Verizon claims it is trying to bring its benefits in line with the industry, and faced with fierce competition from Internet services like Skype and nonunion cable companies like Comcast, it requires major concessions from its wire-line employees.

Strikers counter that Verizon makes profits in the billions annually, and earned a net income of $6.9 billion in the first six months of this year.

"It's corporate greed," said Peter Burke, a Verizon employee of 23 years.

We're continuing the fight from Wisconsin," added McLaughlin. "We have sons and daughters in Iraq and Afghanistan. We're paying for our kids to go to college. This is an attack on middle class values."

It does not help Verizon's case that the company's new CEO, Lowell McAdam, was the former CEO of Verizon Wireless, which settled a class action lawsuit last October for fraudulent data charges, to the tune of $90 million.

This is the man we're dealing with here," said Douglas Heigl, a Verizon employee of 35 years.

Verizon's contract is up for negotiation every few years, and workers in fact worked through the negotiations without a contract in 2005. The last strike was in 2000 and lasted 15 days, a much tamer ordeal than the 17-week strike of 1989. The red-colored T-shirts worn this time around are in fact a tribute, one striker claimed, to blood spilled back then, when a strikebreaker wounded a picketer.

"Scab alert!" one striker yells, and the crowd bursts into a chorus of boos, kicking the dirty sidewalk puddles at a parade of workers in button-downs, sheepishly exiting the building. Verizon is committed to running its operations smoothly while the strike is in progress. According to McLaughlin, the strikebreakers are Verizon desk workers flown-in from Colorado and Texas.

For many of the striking workers, grievances go far beyond the current demands. The wire line division has been heavily downsized in recent years, with work increasingly outsourced and contracted. Verizon feels like these are necessary steps to keep their old fashioned telephone service afloat, while Verizon's employees feel hung out to dry after decades of loyalty.

"We have made this company profitable," said Al Russo, a Verizon employee of 11 years and chief steward of the Local 1101 chapter of CWA.

While most of the protesters insist that they will accept "no givebacks," Russo claimed that employees would get back to work without a contract, as long as the right chips were on the table. "They at least owe us a proper negotiation," he said.

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