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Verizon workers, including 3,500 in Maryland, set Wednesday strike deadline

Nearly 40,000 Verizon workers plan to go on strike Wednesday, including about 3,500 in Maryland, if they're unable to come to a new labor agreement with the communications giant.

The company and the Communications Workers of America began negotiating in June but reached impasses over working conditions and plans to outsource jobs or move work offshore. The union represents technicians and customer service employees from Massachusetts to Virginia, who have been working without a contract since August.

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"From the union's standpoint, we're sorry it has to come to this," said Edward Mooney, international vice president for the communication workers union in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington. "We feel for our customers and members to have to go through this. The company has every ability to avoid this by coming to the table and being reasonable. ... We cannot agree to give our jobs away to subcontractors in other states or, God forbid, overseas."

Company officials accused union leaders of choosing to "make strike threats" instead of bargaining and said they are "fully prepared" to serve customers in the event of a strike.

"We do not take strike threats lightly," said Bob Mudge, president of operations for Verizon's wireline network, which includes FIOS phone, Internet and television services. "For more than a year, we've been preparing in the event union leaders order our employees to walk off the job."

Besides "wireline" workers who install and repair equipment and help customers set up accounts or troubleshoot problems at call centers, the contract covers about 200 Verizon Wireless workers, including some at retail stores. None of the wireless employees work in Maryland.

Verizon workers last went on strike in 2011 and were out for two weeks.

The union has agreed to changes in health care coverage that are expected to save the company $200 million, Mooney said.

But the union is fighting efforts to send half the call center work out of state or offshore and objects to workers being required to work what it termed "excessive" amounts of overtime and holiday shifts, Mooney said.

Betsy Derr of Bloomsburg, Pa., who has spent 16 years as a Verizon customer service representative, said her job could be relocated about 70 miles away.

"Verizon wants to force through changes that would make it easier to uproot workers and hurt our communities," Derr said in a statement provided by the union. "With three more hours of time commuting every day, I'll be gone before my stepsons get up and maybe home for an hour before they go to bed."

Verizon said it has proposed changes that will modernize provisions put into contracts in some cases decades ago.

"Legacy constraints that may have made sense in the Ma Bell era of phone booths and Princess phones don't make sense in today's digital world with high-speed connectivity and dynamic customer demands," said Marc Reed, Verizon's chief administrative officer, in a statement.

Employees covered under the contracts, a number the company says is 36,000, have wage and benefit packages that average more than $130,000 a year, Verizon said.

The wireline business generated about 29 percent of the company's revenue last year but represents just 7 percent of its operating income.

The company has trained thousands of nonunion Verizon workers to handle most union jobs, "from making repairs on poles to responding to inquiries in our call centers," Mudge said. "We know the union's strike order will be a hardship and pose challenges for our employees, but as a 24/7 customer service company, our contingency plans are in place."

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