Southwest Va. Verizon employees picket with Eastern Wire Line workers

Verizon Employees picket along Franklin Road in front of Verizon Building in Downtown Roanoke...
Verizon Employees picket along Franklin Road in front of Verizon Building in Downtown Roanoke Wednesday Morning, April 13, 2016. The Communications Workers of America Union Local 2204 is striking along with thousands of others along the East Coast. Bruce Young/WDBJ7(WDBJ)
Published: Apr. 13, 2016 at 8:49 PM EDT
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After 8 months of working without a contract, thousands of Verizon employees are on strike. In our area, these are the landline employees, the line technicians, 411 operators, and engineers, not the Verizon Wireless employees. It's the largest strike in the Untied States since Verizon workers walked off the job in 2011.

The two sides worked for nearly a year to avoid this day, and a federal mediator even offered to step in and help the two sides come to an agreement, but it did not work.

As the sun rose across the East Coast Wednesday morning, it shined down on 36,000 Verizon employees off the job, 900 of them in the local union's region stretching from Bristol to Staunton. Many of them were in front of the Verizon Building in downtown Roanoke early Wednesday morning.

"We've got a good group here today, I'm really pleased with the turnout and the support we've received from other unions," Communications Workers of America Local Union 2204 President Chuck Simpson said.

Simpson kicked off the rally of about 100 employees with a megaphone, and told union members what they were fighting for. Union members up and down the East Coast also picketed at the same time, with Democratic Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders even joining the picket in New York City.

The CWA landline union members want a better contract, one that includes job retention, benefits, and services.

"It's not about money, it's really not about active employee benefits, it's about protecting our retirees who have funded healthcare when they leave the company and have a pension," Simpson said. "Their active employee health care cost they have an issue with, retirees' healthcare they've got an issue with, we've tried to address those to try and open up bargaining and make things move and the company is blatant, they are not willing to talk about anything but those items and they don't want to discuss any of the items we're bringing to the table."

Verizon's offer includes a 6.5% wage increase over the life of the contract and what it called affordable healthcare benefits. The company said it is just trying to match the current demands of customers, and landline business isn't what it used to be.

"The telecom business has changed over the past 40, 50 years," Verizon Spokesman Kevin King said. "A lot of what union leadership wants is to still be ruled by contracts that were put in place when there were phone booths on every corner and when we all had rotary phones."

Verizon said it has spent the last year training non-union employees to do jobs like answer the phones, climb the poles, and service the network that way customers, strike or no strike, see no interruption.

"We've been preparing for it, we've been ready for this day, actively working to have this day not come," King said. "We've really been invested in the negotiation, we're ready to sit back down at the negotiation table, we're waiting on union leaders to do the same."

Union employees also picketed in front of a tech shop in Roanoke and are picketing in front of the two Verizon Wireless stores in the Roanoke Valley, although the Verizon Wireless employees inside the stores are not included

"We want to continue negotiations, we've actually accepted involvement from federal mediators," King said. "Union leadership chose to walk away from the table, we want them and encourage them to come back and continue the dialogue."

"They don't want to discuss the items that we're bringing to the table nor do they want to take back some of the things that they want to bring to the table as well," Simpson said. "In other words when we talk about making changes to their bargaining proposal, their words are we have to have it all."