Presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) boosted the cause of striking Verizon workers on Wednesday, joining them on a picket line in New York City and blasting the telecom giant in a sidewalk speech.
Nearly 40,000 Verizon workers on the East Coast went on strike early Wednesday morning after 10 months of negotiations with the company failed to produce a new contract. The Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers unions represent the workers.
It’s the largest strike in the U.S. in four years, and it’s happening just as the presidential primaries come to New York.
Sanders’ raucous speech aired live on cable news, giving Verizon a taste of the attention it may receive in the coming days. Sanders, a close ally of CWA who received the union’s endorsement, called Verizon “another major American corporation trying to destroy the lives of working Americans.”
“Verizon is one of the largest, most profitable corporations in this country,” Sanders said. “They want to outsource decent-paying jobs. They want to give their CEO $20 million a year.”
Verizon, which owns the The Huffington Post, said in a statement Wednesday that it had made “good faith efforts” at the bargaining table and offered wage increases, but “union leaders decided to call a strike rather than sit down and work on the issues that need to be resolved.”
The union says the company has refused to put layoff protections for newer employees into the contract and wants to be able to have technicians work far from home for up to two months at a time.
Sanders applauded the striking workers for having the “courage” to walk out.
“I know how hard it is, what a difficult decision it is to go out on strike. I know you’ve thought a whole lot about it, and I know your families will pay a price,” the Vermont independent said. “Today, you are standing up not just for justice for Verizon workers, you’re standing up for millions of Americans who don’t have a union.”
In a blog post on LinkedIn on Wednesday, Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam fired back at Sanders, saying the senator had “uninformed views” that were “contemptible.”
“Our objective in these negotiations is to preserve good jobs with competitive wages and excellent benefits while addressing the needs of our ever-changing business,” McAdam wrote. “All of our contract proposals currently on the table include wage increases, generous 401(k) matches and continued pension benefits. Contrary to Sen. Sanders’s contention, our proposals do not call for mass layoffs or shipping jobs overseas.”
Sanders has vocally backed organized labor in his years in Congress. It’s uncommon, though not unheard of, for presidential candidates to join striking workers in protest. Sanders, however, is no stranger to picket lines — or to labor disputes with Verizon, for that matter.
In 2003, he joined protesting workers in New England when they were locked in a contract fight with the company. As Paul Feeney, an IBEW shop steward, told HuffPost last year, employees “remember when Sanders stood up on the back of a pickup truck and addressed our members … And that means something to people.”
This story has been updated with a statement from Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam.