About 39,000 Verizon landline and cable workers on the East Coast walked off the job Wednesday morning after little progress in negotiations since their contract expired nearly eight months ago.
The workers, members of two unions — the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers — represent installers, customer service employees, repairmen and other service workers in Connecticut, Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., for Verizon's wireline business, which provides fixed-line phone services and FiOS Internet service.
"We're on strike to maintain good jobs and maintain our standard of living," said Keith Purce, president of CWA Local 1101 which represents about 3,500 workers in Manhattan and the Bronx.
Standing on a picket line in Manhattan with hundreds of union workers, Purce said they were prepared to stay out "as long as it takes."
He said talks broke off last week and no new talks were scheduled.
Verizon spokesman Rich Young said the company was very disappointed that union leadership has called a strike. He said it has trained thousands of non-union workers to fill in for striking workers and "we will be there for our customers."
The workers' latest contract expired in August and so far, the unions and management say negotiations have been unsuccessful.
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.
The unions have said Verizon wants to freeze pensions, make layoffs easier and rely more on contract workers. The telecom giant has said there are health care issues that need to be addressed for retirees and current workers because medical costs have grown and the company also wants "greater flexibility" to manage its workers.
Verizon also is pushing to eliminate a rule that would prevent employees from working away from home for extended periods of time. In a television ad, the unions said the company was trying to "force employees to accept a contract sending their jobs to other parts of the country and even oversees."
"The main issues are job security and that they want to move workers miles and miles away," said Isaac Collazo, a Verizon employee who has worked replacing underground cables in New York City for nearly 19 years.
"We have a clause currently that they can't just lay anyone off willy nilly and they want to get rid of that," said Collazo, a single father of three children. "I feel if the company had the opportunity, they would just lay people off."
Verizon said Tuesday that it has worked for more than a year to prepare for the possibility of a strike and has trained thousands of non-union workers to fill in. Employees from other departments across the U.S. also will be sent to replace the striking workers, the company said. In August 2011, about 45,000 Verizon workers went on strike for about two weeks.
"Let's make it clear, we are ready for a strike," Bob Mudge, president of Verizon's wireline network operations said.
The replacement workers, Mudge said, "know our first priority is maintaining services for our customers and they have taken on this challenge with pride."
Verizon Communications Inc., which has a total workforce of more than 177,000 employees, said in a statement Tuesday that the company was contacted by federal mediators and is willing to sit down and continue negotiation talks, if the unions agree to hold off on their strike. A spokeswoman for CWA said the union did not authorize the mediators to offer to extend the strike date.