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Verizon Workers, Management Dig in for Decisive Labor Battle; 'This Is No Ordinary Strike'

On the 10th day of the most important labor fight in America, striking Verizon worker Alexandra Camacho stood on a streetcorner in downtown Brooklyn and vowed to stay out as long as necessary.

"They want to strip from us everything we've won in the past," the slender Camacho said. "They even want to take away our Martin Luther King holiday. Well, that's not gonna happen."

Hundreds of Camacho's fellow workers from Verizon's Brooklyn call center walked the picket line behind her in red shirts. They chanted "No Contract, No Work" to the rhythmic beat of cowbells and drums.

Across the Eastern seaboard, 45,000 Verizon employees have hit the streets - at a time when labor strikes were supposed to be extinct.

Company officials say the unions must face reality.

"As consumers continue to cut the cord or choose competitors' wireline services, the company must make meaningful changes to its wireline cost structure," says one official Verizon response to the union.

But ask yourself: Why would so many workers risk their livelihood in the midst of a stubborn recession, with more than 9 million unemployed?

Because Verizon has left them no choice, the workers say.

This is a company, after all, that is swimming in cash.

In the first quarter of this year, Verizon tripled its profits compared with the previous year.

Since February, when it began its new deal with Apple to market the iPhone, the company has signed up an astounding 2.3 million new iPhone customers.

Yet despite Verizon's enormous success, the company has demanded unprecedented givebacks from the small portion of its 197,000 employees who are still unionized - about 45,000 who belong to the Communications Workers of America or the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Those union members are in the company's legacy land-line phone division or its fast-growing FiOS video service.

For decades, becoming a telephone company worker was a path into the middle class, even if you didn't have a big college education.

But now, union leaders say, the company's demands include:

  • A freeze in all pensions for existing workers and eliminating them completely for new workers
  • An increase in health insurance premiums
  • Elimination of all job security provisions and any restrictions on outsourcing
  • Reducing paid sick days
  • Eliminating four vacation days, including King Day and Veterans DayEliminating supplemental disability benefits

Darrell Gladden, a customer service rep for 23 years in Brooklyn, is worried Verizon wants to ship many of those jobs serving FiOS customers to the Philippines and India.

"They should keep those jobs right here in America," Gladden said.

Verizon spokesman John Bonomo declined to talk about specific demands.

"What we're looking for is the kind of freedom our competitors have," Bonomo said. "If there is a call center that is handling calls with long wait times, we want to be able to switch the customer to a center someplace else."

With its huge profits, Verizon paid chairman Ivan Seidenberg $18 million last year. It paid $7.1million to Lowell McAdam, the former wireless division head who succeeded Seidenberg on Aug. 1 as CEO.

Twice before, in 1989 and 2000, Seidenberg fought nasty strikes with the company's unions and failed to break them.

Verizon kept making huge profits nonetheless.

The new guy, McAdam, thinks he will do what Seidenberg couldn't. He thinks he can outlast Camacho and all the other strikers.

"There's tremendous anger in the country about all this corporate greed," CWA spokesman Bob Master said. "This could be the private sector's battle of Wisconsin."

That's why this is no ordinary strike.

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