Verizon union workers from the CWA Local 1104 walk a...

Verizon union workers from the CWA Local 1104 walk a picket line outside a Verizon location on Zeckendorf Blvd in Garden City. About 2,700 Verizon employees in Long Island — and 45,000 in other states — went on strike Sunday. (Aug. 8, 2011) Credit: Jim Staubitser

The familiar, resonant calls of a picket line -- such as insults like "Scab!" -- could be heard from Verizon facilities across Long Island Sunday, as about 2,700 local workers began a strike with an impact on customers that is yet to be determined.

In all, 45,000 Verizon Communications Inc. landline employees from Massachusetts to Virginia walked out at midnight, when their union pact expired and progress toward a new deal stalled. Workers -- citing Verizon's $2.5-billion profit last year, including its wireless division -- oppose the company's call that they contribute to their health-care coverage and other provisions such as weakening job security.

Officials of the Manhattan-based company say losses in landline business and competition from nonunion companies, like cable and Internet providers, require that they better control costs. They ensured "limited" service disruption during the strike, and are using trained managers, retirees and others to perform union assignments.

But Communications Workers of America Local 1104 members outside Verizon's Garden City center in Nassau County Sunday said their bosses will quickly realize their value. They predicted temporary replacements and out-of-state managers wouldn't keep up.

"We're not just 'tip and ring' [telephone] people anymore," said Doug Zahn, a Verizon installer with the company 16 years. "We're also computer people and TV people."

Verizon, say union leaders, hasn't backed off from the many concessions it first sought in June, including the health-plan changes and the company freezing its contributions to employee pensions.

"The company doesn't think that $300, $400 a month is a big thing to everyday working people. "It is," Cat Parr, a Verizon technician from Baldwin, said of the proposed employee health-care contributions.

John Bonomo, a Verizon spokesman, said health-care costs ($4 billion last year) have steadily increased.

He said the company's wireless profits should be viewed as a positive, in that they allow the landline division to keep "strong union jobs.

"But the world has changed and the business has changed," he said of the loss of telephone customers. "We're in a different environment, and it necessitates us to streamline."

Picketers, wearing red and holding signs like "Workers on Strike for Middle-Class Jobs," blanketed entrances to Verizon sites in Garden City, Massapequa and Commack.

Neither Suffolk nor Nassau police reported any major issues.

Bob Morrow, president of CWA Local 1108, representing about 1,200 Suffolk Verizon workers, said the benefits his members are fighting for represent 50 years of bargaining.

"This in an attack on our workers' families," he said.

In Garden City, Kenneth Widman, a six-year Verizon employee, said the dispute -- to him -- was about a profitable company seeing an opportunity to get richer by seizing on the public-sector movement to reduce workers' benefits.

"They're just trying to take advantage of the economic climate," he said. "We're not doing anything but trying to keep what we have."

Verizon, in a statement, said it intends to keep its union employees among the industry's best-paid. It noted technicians in New York and Long Island make an average of $91,000 a year, including overtime."We will continue to do our part to reach a new contract that reflects today's economic realities," the company said.

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