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Verizon landline workers step up strike

August 8, 2011 |  8:38 am

Verizon workers on strike in Philadelphia With contract talks going nowhere, tens of thousands of Verizon workers vowed to step up protests Monday in cities and towns across the East Coast, where employees on strike against company efforts to cut into healthcare and other benefits are threatening to cripple or drastically slow repair and installation services.

The strike by Verizon Communication Inc.'s landline workers -- it doesn't involve employees of its wireless division -- is not only a sign of the nation's economic woes, but also a testament to the changing tastes in telephones. Verizon says that as more people drop landline phones in favor of cellphones and wireless Internet service, its landline, or wireline, business is declining.

It also says a flood of cheap alternatives such as Skype have taken customers away from traditional communications services.

But Verizon's landline workers counter that if it weren't for people like them, Verizon -- the country's largest wireless carrier -- wouldn't be what it is today. They argue that they gave up raises and other benefits over the years in favor of their current benefits and that the company's success was built on their labor.

"We're just trying to keep what we have," picketer Liam McLaughlin told reporters. He was one of the those marching outside Verizon's Manhattan headquarters, where police set up metal barricades to keep the lines of marching workers away from the temporary workers hired to replace some of them.

Verizon says it's just trying to bring the wireline division's benefits in line with other employees. "If you look at the other 135,000 employees of Verizon, they pay a portion of their monthly healthcare premiums," John Bonomo, a company spokesman, said in a television interview. "This is an effort to bring these employees in line with what other employees in the company have."

The strike involves 45,000 employees from New England to Virginia, represented by the Communication Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Verizon has said the strike won't affect wireless customers, and that new workers have been brought in to handle the jobs the strikers normally would do: repairs of landlines, installations and the like. "Scab!" some picketers yelled as the temps entered the Manhattan Verizon building.

Neither side has indicated it will budge. Verizon's main demands: tying pay hikes to performance reviews and requiring union workers to contribute to healthcare premiums. It also wants to cut into disability benefits and sick time.

"We need to reach a contract that addresses economic realities," said Lee Gierczynski, a Verizon spokesman, in a separate television interview.

Workers say they'll stay out as long as it takes to keep their benefits. "They're not something they gave us. It's something we won," Greg Albi, one of the strikers, told reporters.

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Photo: Verizon workers in Philadelphia stage a protest at one of the company's central offices Monday. Credit: Matt Rourke / Associated Press

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