Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders visited striking Verizon workers in downtown Brooklyn Wednesday morning, speaking into a bullhorn and walking the picket line as 39,000 employees of the telecom giant's cable and landline business walked off the job.
"Brothers and sisters, thank you for your courage in standing up for justice against corporate greed," Sanders told them.
Members of the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical workers -- the two unions who went on strike after months little progress in negotiation since their contracts expired nearly eight months ago -- chanted Sanders' name as he visited the picket lines Wednesday morning.
Sanders addressed the striking installers, customer service workers, repairmen and other service workers as he took a small stage outside a branch in Boerum Hill.
"Verizon is one of the largest, most profitable corporations in this country, but they refuse to sit down and negotiate a fair contract," Sanders said.
The workers gathered to hear Sanders booed and jeered as the Vermont senator mentioned their employer's name and talked about the loss of benefits, outsourcing and the stalled negotiations.
"You're telling corporate America the workers are not something you can push down and down and down," he said.
He said he knew "how hard it is" for them to go on strike.
"And I know you thought a whole lot about it," Sanders said. "And I know your families are gonna pay a price for going out on strike. But you have chosen to stand up for dignity, for justice and to take on an enormously powerful special interest."
Sanders' impromptu visit came hours after Verizon landline workers in Connecticut, Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., all walked off the job.
Sanders' rival, Hillary Clinton, issued a statement earlier saying Verizon "should come back to the bargaining table with a fair offer for their workers."
"We're on strike to maintain good jobs and maintain our standard of living," said Keith Purce, president of CWA Local 1101 which represents about 3,500 workers in Manhattan and the Bronx.
Standing on a picket line in Manhattan with hundreds of union workers, Purce said they were prepared to stay out "as long as it takes."
He said talks broke off last week and no new talks were scheduled.
Verizon spokesman Rich Young said the company was very disappointed that union leadership has called a strike. He said it has trained thousands of non-union workers to fill in for striking workers and "we will be there for our customers."
The workers' latest contract expired in August.
The unions say Verizon wants to freeze pensions, make layoffs easier and rely more on contract workers. The telecom giant has said there are health care issues that need to be addressed for retirees and current workers because medical costs have grown and the company also wants "greater flexibility" to manage its workers.
"The company is being very stubborn about certain issues that are really important to us," said Liz Null, a computer technician picketing in midtown Manhattan. "One that's very important to me is the fact that they want to freeze our pension after 30 years of service. I just can't believe that a company would penalize an older worker like that."
Verizon also is pushing to eliminate a rule that would prevent employees from working away from home for extended periods of time. In a television ad, the unions said the company was trying to "force employees to accept a contract sending their jobs to other parts of the country and even oversees."
"The main issues are job security and that they want to move workers miles and miles away," said Isaac Collazo, a Verizon employee who has worked replacing underground cables in New York City for nearly 19 years.
"We have a clause currently that they can't just lay anyone off willy nilly and they want to get rid of that," said Collazo, a single father of three children. "I feel if the company had the opportunity, they would just lay people off."
But Young said the unions' talk about offshoring jobs and cutting jobs is "absolute nonsense."
"These contracts have provisions that were put in place decades ago. ... They need to take a look at where the business stands in 2016," he added.
Verizon said in a statement Wednesday that it "has activated its business continuity plans as customer service remains the company's top priority."
In August 2011, about 45,000 Verizon workers went on strike for about two weeks.
Verizon Communications Inc. has a total workforce of more than 177,000 employees. In its statement, the company said it had been willing to participate in mediation if the unions extended their strike deadline, but that the unions instead called a strike.