Unions Mount Telecom
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
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
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
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
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