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Unions Mount Telecom
Organizing Drive

IBEW and CWA teamed for a joint training in New Jersey to prepare for
an organizing campaign at Comcast Cable.

The IBEW and Communications Workers of America have joined forces in a national effort to organize workers at two growing cable and communications giants: Comcast and Verizon Wireless. Each has a growing presence in emerging telecommunications markets, a large percentage of unrepresented workers and a tendency to resist efforts of their own workers to win the right to bargain collectively.

At stake for the unions are 70,000 workers they hope to organize: 40,000 at Comcast and 30,000 at Verizon Wireless across the United States.

For the IBEW, the early emphasis is on Comcast, where pilot efforts are under way in New England and New Jersey, said Cecil "Buddy" Satterfield, special assistant to the International President for membership development. A recent three-day joint training and mobilization in New Jersey prepped 30 organizers for both unions for what promises to be an uphill, multiyear campaign.

"Comcast is the big, the bad, and the ugly of corporate America," Satterfield said. "They totally disregard workers’ rights when it comes to union representation. I think the workers want to be represented by a union but there’s a lot of fear and intimidation and threats of job losses."

Scare tactics aside, Comcast is unlikely to reduce its work force at a time that it is aggressively pursuing a greater share of the telecommunications market as Internet-based telephone service emerges as the industry’s next growth area. In recent years, Comcast has gobbled up countless smaller cable companies and even made a bid for a Disney takeover. The cable company is the largest in the country, serving 21 million subscribers in 34 states and employing 82,000 workers. Its workers are largely nonunion.

Over the past five years, 5,000 workers at Comcast and 51 technicians at Verizon Wireless have won the right to bargain collectively. But both companies have made bargaining impossible and instigated several decertification campaigns.

One cable technician reported on the unions’ Comcast organizing web site www.comcastwatch.com that workers were told that management drove by the homes of employees at night to see who may have been attending union meetings. Many other employees report that managers have gone to outrageous lengths to single them out publicly.

Stewart Acuff, AFL-CIO organizing director, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Comcast workers are overworked and underpaid, and so busy that they have no time for lunch or breaks. "Comcast is a vicious, vicious anti-worker company and we have to take them on," he said. "They’re trying to turn jobs that aren’t great into even worse jobs. We can’t shy away from that."

Today, just over 400 IBEW members in New Jersey and Pennsylvania work at Comcast. All were originally organized under other employers. The initial IBEW campaign will seek to sign 1,000 new members in New Jersey and 800 in New England, IBEW Telecommunications Department Director Martha Pultar said. If the unions can gain a foothold in a few key areas of the country, the prospect of a national agreement becomes more likely.

"If you have a larger area, it becomes problematic for them not to bargain fairly," Satterfield said.

In the strategic campaign against Comcast, the unions are targeting more than the company’s rank and file workers. They are going after the company’s bottom line through its relationships with vendors, customers, shareholders and regulators. Last fall IBEW and CWA members across the United States descended upon municipal offices to examine Comcast’s public files. After reporting to 350 sites, union members discovered a host of regulatory violations. As a result of the unions’ complaint, the Federal Communications Commission is investigating the allegations, forcing Comcast on the defensive in the realm of public opinion.

Comcast has already demonstrated an inclination to flout local law. Sacramento County, California has threatened to terminate Comcast’s license to operate for failing to pay nearly $1 million in taxes, or franchise fees, by underreporting revenue and withholding key information. An AFL-CIO researcher is looking for other discrepancies between its promises in franchise agreements and practice.

The IBEW and CWA are also promoting greater balance in shareholder representation on the corporation’s board as an alternative to the overwhelming influence of one board member. CEO Brian Roberts retains one-third voting control over the company even though he owns less than a one-percent stake.

The AFL-CIO will help develop and coordinate political, regulatory, legal, public relations and shareholder activities, and compel the companies to respect workers’ organizing and collective bargaining rights.

Verizon’s collective bargaining agreement in 2000 with the unions supposedly put to rest the issue of organizing rights at its wireless unit.

"Four years and another contract later, Verizon Wireless continues to throw every conceivable obstacle in our way and deny its workers a voice on the job," said IBEW International President Edwin D. Hill.

As for the proposed acquisition of Disney by Comcast, the unions are opposed on several grounds. Disney encompasses more than Mickey Mouse and a few amusement parks. It is a diversified multimedia corporation that has holdings in broadcast, cable, film production, publishing, music and multimedia. A Comcast/Disney merger would create a $140 billion media giant that would further contribute to the concentration of media ownership in a few hands. Such a conglomeration could lead to higher cable rates, fewer choices for viewers and likely erosion of workers’ rights under Comcast. Disney currently works with its unions, including the IBEW, which has members at both Disney amusement parks in the United States. Any Comcast takeover would threaten those workers.

President Hill said Comcast has absorbed the anti-union culture of many of the cable companies it bought out. "We had hoped that better instincts would prevail, but we are prepared to meet them on their own terms."

Stay tuned for reports of progress through www.ibew.org and www.comcastwatch.com.


May 2004 IBEW Journal