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April 13, 2016

Unions for 39,000 Verizon workers on strike as of 6 a.m. Wednesday

Wireline business employees have worked without a contract since Aug. 1

The unions representing 39,000 Verizon workers went on strike at 6 a.m. Wednesday after little progress in negotiations since their contract expired nearly eight months ago.

In Philadelphia, workers are expected to picket outside the company's 9th and Race Streets location at 8 a.m.

The union workers, represented by Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, staff Verizon facilities in nine states, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. They work in the company's wireline business, which provides fixed-line phone services and FiOS Internet service.

They have been working without a contract since Aug. 1. Negotiations began in June.

"This means that unless this company reconsiders its shameful – and I do mean shameful – demands all members will be on strike as of 6 a.m. Wednesday, April 13," CWA President Chris Shelton said. "We've been bargaining with Verizon for almost a year. We've tried everything."

The contract dispute with Verizon Communications Inc. revolves around retirement benefits, healthcare costs and the outsourcing of call center jobs. 

Outside a Verizon office in Philadelphia's Chinatown section, dozens of striking workers gathered. Edward Mooney of the Communications Workers of America said the issue was about keeping jobs from going overseas.

Union workers say they have agreed to healthcare compromises that will save Verizon hundreds of millions of dollars. In exchange, they are asking Verizon build up its FiOS broadband network and cease outsourcing call center jobs. They also seek a pension increase.

"We haven't had a pension increase in years," CWA District 1 Vice President Dennis Trainor said. "We're looking for a modest increase. The company is looking to put a freeze on it."

In addition to authorizing a strike, union workers have purchased television ads decrying the impact of outsourcing call center jobs. Betsy Derr, a CWA worker from Bloomsburg, Columbia County, said her call center job could be transferred to Scranton, which could add three hours to her daily commute.

"We already work overtime, at times as much as 10 hours a week," Derr said. "We sometimes work weekends. An additional three-hour commute would mean we'd have essentially no home life at all."  

Verizon workers also went on strike in 2000 and 2011, but this potential walkout would be the first since the company purchased AOL and gained full control of Verizon Wireless.

In a statement Monday, Verizon said it has made bargaining progress with the union.

“We’ve tried to work with union leaders to reach a deal,” said Marc Reed, Verizon’s chief administrative officer. “Verizon has been moving the bargaining process forward, but now union leaders would rather make strike threats than constructively engage at the bargaining table.”

But union leaders said the two sides are not close, saying the last bargaining session occurred Thursday.

"How far apart are we? Very far apart," Shelton said. "Otherwise, we wouldn't be taking this action."

Verizon is fully prepared to serve its customers during a strike, the company said.

“We do not take strike threats lightly,” said Bob Mudge, president of Verizon’s wireline network operations, in a statement. “For more than a year, we’ve been preparing in the event union leaders order our employees to walk off the job. If a strike takes place, whether it’s one day, two weeks or longer, we are ready.”

“We have trained thousands of non-union Verizon employees to carry out virtually every job function handled by our represented workforce – from making repairs on poles to responding to inquiries in our call centers," Mudge added. "We know the unions’ strike order will be a hardship and pose challenges for our employees, but as a 24x7 customer service company, our contingency plans are in place and our company will continue to serve those who rely on us.”

According to Verizon, the 36,000 employees covered under these contracts currently have a wage and benefit package that averages more than $130,000 a year. Almost all of those employees support the wireline business.

The company proposal includes a 6.5 percent wage increase over the term of the contract, affordable healthcare benefits and retirement benefits including a 401k with a company match.

Verizon is also looking to modernize legacy contractual provisions, some put in place decades ago, said the company, which is seeking "greater flexibility to manage and utilize its workforce to gain operating efficiencies and better customer experiences."

AP contributed to the report.