Striking Verizon workers rally at Statehouse

Thousands of striking Verizon workers from New Jersey and beyond rallied with other union members and Democratic lawmakers at the Statehouse on Monday hoping to send a message to the leaders of the telecommunications giant: We stand together.

"Unions built America, and corporate greed is trying to destroy it," said Bob Speer, president of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 827, during the massive rally, which was held in New Jersey's capital in support of the 39,000 Verizon workers from both the IBEW and Communications Workers of America who have been off the job since April 13.

"Corporate greed is trying to destroy the middle class, so it's time for unions to unite coast to coast!" Speer yelled from the podium at the Statehouse entrance.

The rally featured over a dozen speakers and drew a crowd of several thousand to State Street, where both a large inflatable rat and "fat cat" were displayed. Most of the crowd wore red T-shirts and carried signs and banners denouncing Verizon's leadership.

They were joined by scores of Democratic political leaders from the Legislature and New Jersey's congressional delegation, including Rep. Donald Norcross, D-1st of Camden, and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, D-32nd of Secaucus.

"The working class has to have a piece of the pie. That's why we're here with you," Prieto told the crowd. "We're going to fight for workers' rights until hell freezes over."

Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd of West Deptford, and Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, also issued statements supporting the striking workers.

"Each and every employee has the right to fair compensation for their labor and fair treatment for their dignity. This may be a new age of telecommunications, but that does not mean that the basic American values of workers’ rights should be sacrificed or compromised," Sweeney said.

Singleton said the struggle that Verizon's rank-and-file employees face against corporate executives embodies the struggles many American workers face.

“Every time sacrifices are made, it’s always on the part of rank-and-file workers and not executives or shareholders, who reap millions each year. Fair compensation and sufficient relocation notice that won’t tear families apart is not too much to ask for," he said.

Also in attendance was Phil Murphy, former U.S. ambassador to Germany and possible Democratic candidate for governor next year, and 3rd Congressional District candidate Jim Keady.

"The management of Verizon has not learned their history, and their crystal ball is broken. They've missed that this state was built on the backs of unions," Murphy said.

"Some of you might know me as the guy Gov. Christie told to 'sit down and shut up.' But I think all of us have made it clear to guys like Gov. Christie and guys like (Verizon CEO) Lowell McAdam that we will never sit down and shut up," Keady said. "We, the working people of New Jersey, we're going to stand up and fight."

Now in its second week, the strike was called by the two unions because of a lack of progress in negotiations. Their last contract expired in August.

About 5,000 of the strikers are from New Jersey, according to the unions.

The company has claimed that the striking workers earn more than $130,000 a year on average, and that its latest offer includes a 6.5 percent pay increase over the term of the contract, as well as continuation of a 401(k) match and special retirement incentives.

But union workers claim the company wants to freeze pensions, make layoffs easier, and rely on more contract workers rather than union employees. They also claim the company is pushing to eliminate a rule preventing employees from working away from home for extended periods.

The standoff has grown increasingly ugly, with Verizon reporting incidents of vandalism to equipment and employees saying the company is ending health care coverage for striking workers.

Lloyd Leone, a striking cable splicer who traveled to Trenton from his home in Flanders, Morris County, said he was making arrangements for a longtime work stoppage.

"I think it's going to be at least a few more weeks. The company wants to zing us by ending our health benefits. They think it might soften us up. But just the fact they can try to push us around makes a lot of us appreciate having a union and having a single voice," Leone said.

Tonya Malloy, a striking worker from Riverside, said she appreciated all the support shown during the event, which drew union workers from both the IBEW and CWA as well as the AFL-CIO and New Jersey Education Association.

"It's wonderful to see," Malloy said. "It's strength in numbers. We're a big family, and all our brothers and sisters are fighting together."

She said the workers simply want a fair agreement.

"We hope the company hears us. We work hard for the company, and we want what's fair for everyone."

Employee Tara Kukorto, of Pennsylvania, said she wants Verizon to remain a good employer.

"Verizon has always been a really good company that's taken very good care of its workers," she said. "I'm very thankful for that, but I want it to continue. It's been a wonderful company, and I want it to stay that way."

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