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In Verizon Workers Strike, Negotiations Continue

MELISSA BLOCK, host: In Philadelphia today, hundreds of union supporters protested outside a Verizon office building. Forty-five thousand of the company's employees have been on strike for two weeks now. The workers form the bulk of Verizon's traditional telephone business on the East Coast, from Massachusetts to Virginia. NPR's Jeff Brady reports that negotiations are ongoing but no one is talking settlement yet.

JEFF BRADY, host: At noon, the street was a sea of red shirts. Many had the Communications Workers of America logo, along with various slogans. One showed an angry dog and the words "it's about to get ugly." Marie Lawmaker is a system tech and says it was difficult to strike during a tough economy but she said the walkout is about preserving the middle incomes.

MARIE LAWMAKER: We're not asking for anything more. We're just trying to keep what we have. They want to take our benefits. They want to bring in contractors, which would take our jobs.

BRADY: Verizon says its traditional telephone business is on the decline and the benefits its workers now enjoy were meant for another time. The company wants employees to contribute more for their health care and to approve new work rules that give Verizon extra flexibility. Among those speaking at the rally, Congressman Robert Brady from south Philadelphia.

Brady said he tried to reach Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam.

Representative ROBERT BRADY: Let me tell you something. I called this guy, Lowell McAdam. I called him four times. Three times I got disconnected. What the hell is that? If you were working I wouldn't have got disconnected.


LAWMAKER: The congressman had difficulty reaching the CEO, it was easy to get Verizon's chief communications officer on the line. Peter Thonis says managers are doing the best they can.

PETER THONIS: We still have been able to really keep up and we've been able to handle more than 90% of the issues coming in. And the backlog we're chewing through as people get more up to speed.

BRADY: Thonis says recent heavy rains have made keeping up with repairs more difficult, but he says that would've been the case if there was a strike or not.

THONIS: I think where customers would see a bit of a lag is in new installations, which are just pushed off a bit as we focus on repairs first.

BRADY: Johanna Chang of Arlington, Virginia knows this. She moved into a new apartment but has had trouble getting someone out to install high-speed Internet service.

JOANNA CHANG: Okay. If they don't come on the 26th, I guess I can probably wait it out for maybe another week and a half. And after that I'll probably going to go to Comcast.

BRADY: Chang says she doesn't sympathize much with the striking workers and she thinks walking off the job now was a bad decision.

CHANG: In this economy I feel like they, you know, should just feel happy that they have a job.

BRADY: As the strike moves toward a third week, negotiations are continuing, but in their public statements it's clear the unions and Verizon are still far apart on some of the most basic issues. Jeff Brady, NPR News, Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.