Verizon workers hit picket lines from Mass. to Va.

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NEW YORK (AP) - Thousands of Verizon landline workers took to picket lines Monday from Massachusetts to Virginia, fighting management demands for contract givebacks and disputing that their work is unprofitable.

Verizon Communication Inc. countered that its 45,000 unionized workers in the East should not expect the kind of compensation they were paid when the phone company was a monopoly _ and when no one questioned whether a household needed a land line.

Analysts said the strike came at a key point in the evolution of telecommunications: the beginning of the demise of the ordinary wired home phone.

“Fewer and fewer people are using their traditional land lines,” said Roger Entner, founder of Recon Analytics in Boston.

The company used managers to replace workers Monday, but said demonstrators at some offices had caused some service disruptions by keeping the managers from getting in; it did not provide details.

Verizon also said it was investigating several instances of possible sabotage by employees, including fiber-optic lines being cut. It said the damage affected phone, Internet and TV service in Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.

Union spokeswoman Candice Johnson said it was “a management tactic, rolling out the idea of sabotage.” She said the union “does not condone illegal action of any kind.”

Strikers claimed two demonstrators were hit by a replacement worker’s car near Buffalo.

Johnson and company spokesman Richard Young said management and labor _ the workers are represented by the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers _ met face-to-face on Monday in New York. They had no word on progress.

The contract expired at midnight Saturday.

Verizon Wireless, the non-union and much more profitable division of which Verizon owns 55 percent, was not affected by the strike. But the wireless operation was a focus of contention anyway.

The company said its “wireline” business, as opposed to wireless, had declined over the last decade both in customer base and profits.

Company spokesman Richard Young said the company wants to freeze the workers’ pensions but is willing to enhance their 401k accounts. He said management is also demanding that workers contribute to their health insurance premiums.

Young said the workers’ benefits “no longer reflect today’s marketplace.’

“The phone company is not a monopoly anymore,” he said. “There are dozens of competitors.”

CWA spokeswoman Candice Johnson said its best-paid workers get about $77,000 a year in New York. The company puts the figure at $91,000 and said benefits average $50,000.

Johnson said Verizon is asking $20,000 per worker in annual concessions.

Strikers said it was wrong to separate them from the company’s overall profitability _ Young said it made $3 billion in the first half of this year _ because they are the underpinnings of the profitable wireless sector.

Paula Lopez, 60, a customer service representative on a picket line in New York, acknowledged that fewer people used land line phones but said land lines were “the stepping stones and building blocks for wireless. … That’s where they got the money to start up the wireless.”

“We built this company and we gave them the ability to have wireless,” said Lori Speciale, vice president of IBEW 2214, on a picket line in Buffalo.

The company acknowledged that wireless is not totally independent of the landline workers and that FiOS cable TV, Internet and phone packages, which the strikers install and maintain, are profitable. But Young said the company could not ignore that the divisions the strikers work for were unprofitable overall.

Demonstrators also complained that the company was squeezing them when high-level executives were making millions.

Mark Maurer, a customer representative, said as he demonstrated in Garden City, N.Y., “What I find hard to understand is how the executive compensation could be so obscene in this day and age.”

Young said executive pay was based on performance and had been approved by stockholders.

Analyst Entner said the problem is, “The company is half in trouble.”

He said the loss of land lines is accelerating “and only with the introduction of FiOS has that been stemmed. The workers know that, but they also know their checks come from a big, profitable company.

“So we’re in concession bargaining, with the company saying we need concessions or jobs will be lost and the workers doubting jobs will be lost because the company is doing all right,” Entner said.

Gary Chaison, a professor of labor relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., said the stakes were high enough for both sides that he doubted a strike of more than a week. Verizon’s last strike, by 86,000 workers, lasted two weeks in 2000 and caused many repair delays.

“This kind of bargaining, with pensions and health insurance givebacks, is happening everywhere now,” he said. “The union worries about opening the door on these things but they don’t want a long strike.”

AT&T Inc., the only U.S. phone company larger than Verizon, wrung some concessions from unions in 2009, when contracts covering about 90,000 workers expired. The negotiations ended without a strike, and with workers shouldering some premiums and co-payments for their health insurance.

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Associated Press writers Frank Eltman in Garden City, Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, Beth Fouhy, Ula Ilnytzky and Peter Svensson in New York, Ben Nuckols in Washington and Mark Pratt in Boston contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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