Maryland Verizon workers among 40,000 on strike

After 10 months of unsuccessful labor negotiations, Verizon workers are on strike.

After 10 months of unsuccessful labor negotiations, nearly 40,000 Verizon employees — 3,500 of them in Maryland — went on strike Wednesday, the second time in five years they walked off the job due to a contract dispute with the communications giant.

Employees picketed outside the company's building on St. Paul Street in downtown Baltimore Wednesday morning. Others planned to protest at Verizon facilities in Woodlawn, Randallstown, Cockeysville and Nottingham.

The company and the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represent service workers from Massachusetts to Virginia, have been unable to reach a contract agreement due to disagreements over working conditions and job outsourcing. The employees work for Verizon's wireline business, which provides fixed-line telephone and Fios Internet and television service.

The most recent contract expired in August.

It's unclear how long the strike might last. In 2011, the unions picketed for two weeks before the company and its workers made a deal.

That strike led to weeks-long backups in service to some customers. In anticipation of this year's walkout, Verizon trained 10,000 of its non-unionized workers to cover the striking workers' responsibilities.

New York-based Verizon said in a statement that all its products and services will be available to customers, despite the strike.

While customers initially may not notice much of a change in service, the sooner the strike ends, the better, said Rick Drescher, managing director of technical services at Savills Studley, a New York real estate company.

Drescher, who advises clients on data center and telecommunication services, said the longer the strike, the more of a degradation in service customers could see from the much smaller, less experienced workforce.

As the strike drags on, repairs of the biggest outages likely would take precedence, he said, delaying single-customer installations.

"It's the one guy at home whose Fios line from the street to his house broke," he said. "Those are the guys that are going to see the biggest delays."

"The longer the strike ends up lasting, the backlog gets bigger and bigger," he added.

Verizon reports it has about 7 million Fios Internet customers across its multistate system, but declines to disclose how many wireline phone customers it has or break down its customer counts by state.

The unions say Verizon wants to freeze pensions, make layoffs easier and rely more on contract workers. The company has said that health care issues need to be addressed for retirees and current workers because medical costs have grown and that it 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 company said it has tried to reach agreements with its workers, offering wage increases, retirement benefits and health care benefits, "but union leaders decided to call a strike rather than sit down and work on the issues that need to be resolved."

Marc Reed, Verizon's chief administrative officer, called the strike "a move that hurts all of our employees."

He called on the union leaders to sit down with the company and the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to reach a deal.

"Unfortunately, union leaders have their own agenda rooted in the past and are ignoring today's digital realities," he said. "Calling a strike benefits no one, and brings us no closer to resolution."

The strike drew attention from the presidential campaign trail Wednesday, with Bernie Sanders visiting a picket line in Brooklyn and, along with fellow Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, calling on Verizon to bring a better offer to the table.

Bill Dulaney, president of the Communications Workers' Baltimore chapter, worked for Verizon as a special services technician for 40 years before retiring recently.

He said employees are being forced to work overtime and holidays and drive longer commutes, all while their jobs are put in jeopardy because of plans to move call centers and other operations offshore.

"We're dealing with one of the greediest corporations in America today," Dulaney said. "They completely disrespect us. We just have no chance to have a family life while we're working at Verizon anymore."

Linda Gemmill, a central office technician who lives in Stewartstown, Pa., said in her 37 years at Verizon, she has been transferred to Hunt Valley, then to Baltimore — and she fears the next move will have her driving to Silver Spring every day.

"They're forcing us to work overtime," Gemmill said. "They don't want to give us a fair contract. They want to move us wherever they want to move us, with no regard for where we live. They want to outsource our jobs. They haven't kept up with raises."

Leah Skeeters, a customer service clerk from Catonsville who worked at Verizon for 15 years, said the company is not acting fairly in its negotiations with its employees.

"I just feel like they want to keep the money for themselves and not give us what is cost-effective for me, being a single mom," Skeeters said. "We deserve the pay increase that rightfully is ours."

Unions have lost bargaining power nationwide in the last several decades as their numbers have dwindled and companies have moved middle-class jobs overseas, said Jeremy Schwartz, economic professor at Loyola University Maryland's Sellinger School of Business.

Combined with technological advances, that trend has given large corporations more control over their employees, said Schwartz, who specializes in labor economics.

"The firms have more alternatives," he said. "They can outsource or replace workers with technology. That gives them a lot of leverage when negotiating with workers."

Schwartz did not speculate on how long this strike might last, but he noted Verizon's move to train nonunion workers to cover the union jobs during the strike, a possible indicator that the company will try to outlast the workers.

"How long the strike lasts might hinge on how well those nonunion workers do in those union jobs," Schwartz said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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