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Contract talks continue in Verizon strike

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Hopes for a quick resolution to the Verizon Communications strike faded early this week as talks between company officials and union representatives slowed, keeping workers on picket lines in Queens and throughout the city.

A company spokesman said Tuesday that talks between the company and the more than 85,000 workers who walked off the job when their contract expired on Sunday were going slower than expected, and that a resolution to the work stoppage seemed further off than before.

Though talks continued after a weekend midnight strike deadline and early into the week, unionized workers struck the nation's largest telephone provider Sunday and manned the picket lines in what they said was a fight for job security and the right to recruit new workers.

About 2,500 Queens members of Communications Workers of America joined their more than 80,000 colleagues along the East Coast in the strike against Verizon Communications. Bell Atlantic changed its name to Verizon after a recent merger with GTE. The work stoppage affected customers in the former Bell Atlantic service area, from Maine to the Virginias.

Eric Rabe, vice president for media relations at Verizon, said in a conference call from Washington, D.C. Tuesday, that the situation between the company and CWA was less optimistic than on the first day of the strike.

"It's been an intense and exhausting process," he said. "We are still engaged. We're working the issues one at a time."

Some of the major sticking points between union leaders and Verizon include job security; the number of workers the company is allowed to transfer to non-union contractors; the union's ability to organize more than 30,000 employees at Verizon Wireless, a fast-growing subsidiary of Verizon; and the chance to work in new fields such as satellites and Digital Subscriber Lines, or DSL lines, that are now handled by non-union contractors.

"We want the work," said Bob Smith, district steward for the Bayside/Whitestone district of CWA Local 1106. "We are on strike for what we believe is ours."

A spokeswoman for Verizon said the strike should not affect normal calls or Internet surfing, but customers needing repairs, requesting a new phone line or trying to reach customer service would probably face delays.

As union members kept watch over Verizon locations throughout the city, police were left to deal with dozens of incidents involving cut power and phone lines. On Monday evening police said 73 incidents of sabotaged phone lines were reported citywide, including several in Queens, none of which have been directly linked to striking workers.

No agreement had been reached as of press time Tuesday. As talks continued, both sides remained hopeful for a quick resolution, but Verizon workers on strike in several Queens locations said union members were prepared to increase the pressure if discussions broke down.

The most suspicious crime reported to authorities since the strike began occurred at 5 p.m. Monday in Flushing, when 35 phone lines were cut inside a locked cable box in an incident police said was committed by someone with a key to the box, said Cadet John Buthorn, a police spokesman.

About an hour later 100 people on Beach 123rd Street in Rockaway Park lost phone service when a feeder cable was cut, he said.

In other incidents, two men were seen cutting power lines early Sunday from an electrical pole at 33-43 14th St. in Astoria before escaping in a gray car just before 2 a.m., Buthorn said. The next day, he said, three men were seen at about the same time cutting power lines from another pole at 30-90 23rd St. in Astoria.

Rabe said Verizon would do whatever it could to stop the vandalism, harassment and threats. He said the majority of the incidents in the state, about 230, were centered in the metropolitan area. He said the incidents reported included rocks and eggs being thrown at managers trying to go to work.

"Our people must be able to do our jobs without fear of harm," he said.

Verizon spokeswoman Maureen Flanagan said union talks with Verizon Wireless - the division CWA would like to unionize - were being held separately.

Union representative Smith, a 20-year veteran of the company who was with about 30 other strikers outside a Verizon parking lot on 42nd Avenue and 215th Street in Bayside, said the workers were prepared to strike for as long as necessary. As the group he was supervising passed the time by tossing a football around on the quiet street, Smith acknowledged a sense of calm.

"That's only because they're talking," he said. "As long as they're talking there's always hope they'll get it settled."

About two dozen union protesters were outside a Verizon Communications office in Springfield Gardens Monday, where buses, trucks and cars honked their horns in support.

Gina Jackson, shop steward for the office that employs about 150 people, said job security and unionizing wireless employees were the most important issues.

"They are trying to exploit those workers," she said.

A manager at Verizon's Manhattan headquarters said 40,000 managers were working 12-hour shifts six days a week to cover the workload of the striking employees.

Rabe said Tuesday the mood had definitely changed during the first three days of the strike.

"I think it's fair to say the mood is generally less optimistic than it was on Sunday," he said. "But at the same time we still keep slugging through the issues. We're still continuing in a positive direction but it is a struggle. It is slower than I had hoped."

Despite the hopeful attitude, delegates for CWA Local 1106 in Elmhurst said Monday the issue of unionizing wireless workers was significant.

"The future of this company is wireless," said Frank Rogato, the picket captain for 1106. "That's were the jobs are going - video, satellite dishes. Our people should be doing that work. It's a strike for the future."

- Michelle Han, Bryan Schwartzman and Peter Sorkin contributed to this story

Posted 7:05 pm, October 10, 2011
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