Bill Montefusco of Mattituck, a 25-year Verizon field technician, on the picket line outside the Verizon facility on Hubbard Avenue this morning. Photo: Denise Civiletti

More than three dozen striking workers, clad in red sweatshirts and carrying signs that demanded “Build up FIOS – not executive pay” began gathering outside Verizon’s Riverhead garage on Hubbard Avenue at 6 this morning. They waved to passing motorists who honked their support and hollered at managerial employees who crossed the line to enter the lot.

“How do you sleep at night you f——ing scab,” shouted one picketing worker as a man who’d crossed the line got out of his car. The man laughed, further incensing the striker.

“I’m here almost 29 years. This ain’t funny,” said the picketer, Mark Obraitis of Manorville. “I have a mortgage, kids in college,” he said. “I’m angry.”

'I have a mortgage, kids in college. I’m angry.' Mark Obraitis of Manorville. Photo:Denise Civiletti
‘I have a mortgage, kids in college. I’m angry.’ Mark Obraitis of Manorville. Photo:Denise Civiletti

About 36,000 Verizon wireline workers walked off the job yesterday in a strike called by the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. It is the second strike in five years by the unions representing Verizon’s wireline workers.

“Verizon wants to eliminate our job security, by being able to contract out our jobs and lay us off,” said Brad Keller of Mattituck, a 19-year Verizon employee and the leader of the Riverhead picket line. “What good is having a job if they can contract out your work and then fire you?” he asked.

According to the union, Verizon does not want to invest in its landline service, which is not as profitable as its wireless business. Since 2004 the number of wireline workers in Suffolk has been halved, from 1,400 to 700. Besides retirements and attrition, the company has transferred 92 workers from Suffolk to Brooklyn. The Riverhead garage, where 40 field technicians were based as recently as 2000, is down to a crew of just eight.

“You drive around here – you see,” Keller said. “We have double poles. We have cables hanging off, things are broken, plastic bags wrapped around the cable. All can be replaced. We’re willing to do the work,” he said.

Keller said the company’s failure to invest in upgrading the wireline service in eastern Suffolk to fiber-optic cable is hurting job growth in the region.

Verizon picket line leader Brian Keller speaks to striking workers outside the Riverhead garage, Photo: Denise Civiletti
Verizon picket line leader Brian Keller of Mattituck speaks to striking workers outside the Riverhead garage, Photo: Denise Civiletti

“It’s a technology-driven workplace today,” he said. “If you have the option of hooking into an aging network that’s obsolete in Riverhead or of going to Islip where you have a state-of-the-art network, where would you put your business?”

Aquebogue resident Roy Heck, with 17 years as a Verizon line worker is the “junior guy” working out of the Riverhead garage. “It’s extra special to me because I’m the first one on the chopping block,” Heck said.

The company is looking to get rid of its unions, he said. “They offer incentives for people to leave. They don’t replace them. Then when they have no one left they’ll start hiring non-union,” Heck said.

Philip Allen of Riverhead and Roy Heck of Aquebogue.Photo: Denise Civiletti
Philip Allen of Riverhead and Roy Heck of Aquebogue.Photo: Denise Civiletti

“This is not us trying to get more and take more,” said CWA business agent John Morris, who joined the picketers in Riverhead. “This is us trying to earn a living working for a company that we help earn $1.8 billion a month,” he said.

“They want to be able to force people to travel 100 miles each day to and from work and to be able to transfer you away from home — to any state from Massachusetts to Virginia, for two months at a time,” Morris said.

Meanwhile, Keller said, “We no longer have enough people to cover this area.”

“If the company was in trouble financially the majority of the people on this line would do what they can to keep it afloat,” Heck said. “But that’s not the case. They’re offered $35 billion to buy Yahoo, a failing company. It’s chump change.”

The workers, who’ve been without a contract since August, say the company doesn’t bargain in good faith.

“There are 30 bargaining points — they won’t move in any one of them. There’s no back and forth,” Obraitis said. “That’s not how you negotiate. You don’t negotiate by demanding everything and giving up nothing.”

“It’s a one-way deal: Take, take, take — and sit on our pile of cash,” Heck said.

Strikers waves to passing motorists who honked their horns in support.Photo:Denise Civiletti
Strikers waves to passing motorists who honked their horns in support.Photo:Denise Civiletti

A company spokesman could not be reached for comment, but in a press release issued yesterday, Verizon said the company has been trying to negotiate agreements since June.

“While the company has on the table proposed wage increases, continued retirement benefits (including a generous 401(k) match) and excellent healthcare benefits, union leaders decided to call a strike rather than sit down and work on the issues that need to be resolved,” according to the release.

Verizon’s chief administrative officer Marc Reed criticized the unions for declining to submit to mediation by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, noting that the 2011 strike was settled by mediation. Workers went back to work after two weeks when both sides agreed to mediate a new contract. Many were very unhappy with the result, which included scaled back health care benefits.

Ed Hanus, of Mattituck, who with 18 years as a Verizon field technician has been through two strikes, said he expected this one “to be a long haul.”

Ed Hanus of Mattituck, who has worked for Verizon for 18 years: 'It's going to be a long haul.' Photo: Denise Civiletti
Ed Hanus of Mattituck, left, who has worked for Verizon for 18 years: ‘It’s going to be a long haul.’ Photo: Denise Civiletti

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor and attorney. Her work has been recognized with numerous journalism awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She was also honored in 2020 with a NY State Senate Woman of Distinction Award for her trailblazing work in local online news. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.