Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have both weighed in on the strike against Verizon Communications Inc., supporting the 39,000 workers who set up pickets at 6 a.m. Wednesday.

Clinton walked with striking workers in Midtown Manhattan on Wednesday.

"I am disappointed to learn that negotiations have broken down," she said in an earlier statement from her campaign office. "Verizon should come back to the bargaining table with a fair offer for their workers. To preserve and grow America's middle class, we need to protect good wages and benefits, including retirement security."

Sanders joined strikers at a rally in Brooklyn.

"Thank you for your courage in standing up for justice against corporate greed," he told members of the Communication Workers of America. "Verizon is one of the largest, most profitable corporations in this country, but they refuse to sit down and negotiate a fair contract.

Sanders met with CWA members in Philadelphia last week, attending a rally at Verizon's operations building at Ninth and Race Streets.

On strike are members of the CWA, which has endorsed Sanders, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Union members work from New England to West Virginia, including in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, employed by Verizon Communications Inc.'s landline division.

"It's regrettable that union leaders have called a strike, a move that hurts all of our employees," Marc Reed, chief administrative officer of Verizon Communications Inc., said in a statement Wednesday. "Calling a strike benefits no one and brings us no closer to resolution."

No talks are scheduled.

"We are willing, but we have not heard anything from the union," Verizon spokesman Richard Young wrote in an email at 4:41 p.m. Wednesday.

At 4:42 p.m., Edward Mooney, CWA district vice president, emailed, "We have notified the company that we are available to continue negotiating and have not had a response from them."

Spirits were high early Wednesday morning outside Verizon's building in Chinatown, where police closed off the block and several hundred enthusiastic Verizon workers, dressed in CWA's trademark red T-shirts, shouted slogans, looked for coffee, and chatted with colleagues.

Like the rest of Verizon's 39,000 striking employees, Joe Simmons, 48, a lineman from Glassboro, can talk about the issues: pension cutbacks, health-benefit cost increases, call-center work moved overseas, forced overtime, forced assignments (months at a time away from home) to work on projects elsewhere.

But as Simmons, a 29-year employee, picketed Wednesday, a smile played over his face.

"I met my wife inside this building," he said.

Both Simmons and his wife, Kimberly, a database analyst and Verizon employee for 26 years, are on a strike that began after talks failed Tuesday. Many workers picketing Wednesday talked about spouses, siblings, and parents, all Verizon employees.

To the Simmonses and others, the underlying issue is protecting the kind of middle-class salaries that allowed Simmons and his wife to put two children through college. His mother-in-law and sister are Verizon retirees.

"We make a decent living," Simmons said.

Fellow lineman Ken Brown, 54, of Philadelphia, listening, agreed. "Somehow, it's become a crime to be middle class and make a decent living," he said.

"I'm very grateful to Verizon," Brown said, pointing out that its tuition reimbursement helped him pay for a master's in English literature. He made enough to put three daughters through college.

But, he said, "all of our benefits we've earned over the years, they are trying to take them back. It's making it more difficult to live a middle-class life, to not have a second job."

Smaller groups gathered outside Verizon's building at 17th and Arch Streets and at the Verizon Mobile store in Center City.

Justine Daugherty, a 17-year employee, said the atmosphere inside the Verizon building was strange but friendly as she and the handful of workers on duty gathered their things at 5:55 a.m. and prepared to leave, after reporting for their 5 a.m. shifts.

"It's scary, unsettling," she said. "You pray for the future. I understand why the union is doing this. I'd prefer to be working and them talking, but I support the union."

The striking union members, who have been working without a contract since August, also handle fiber-optic cable installation, sales and service, as well as installation and repairs of the mobile network.

Verizon said it has trained thousands of nonunion employees and "business partners" to fill in for some of the striking workers. Cellphone service is unlikely to be affected. However, repair or installation requests for Internet or landline service could be delayed.

The unions last went on strike in 2011, when workers walked off the job for 10 days.

jvonbergen@phillynews.com

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@JaneVonBergen

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