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July/August IBEW Journal

When it comes to its treatment of its 60,000 workers, Comcast can be a rat.

The IBEW, the Communications Workers of America and the AFL-CIO have joined forces in a high-profile attempt to make sure America knows it, with a campaign to show that the country’s largest cable company is, with only a few exceptions, systematically denying its workers a voice in their workplace.

On May 19, an inflatable rat wearing a Comcast sign was in place in the heart of New York City. While tourists took turns photographing themselves with the rat, IBEW, CWA and AFL-CIO members leafleted passers-by outside the hotel ballroom where a member of the Comcast board of directors presided over a society dinner.

From left are Local 827 members Glenn Yearly, Leah Gaughan, Cliff Fredricks, Al Sullivan and Mark Adams in Philadelphia.

A week earlier, Chicago IBEW Local 21 made sure the rat followed one Comcast executive as he made a series of appearances around town. Calling themselves the Truth Squad, IBEW activists are protesting Comcast’s refusal to settle with members in Chicago’s western suburbs and in northern Indiana who have been working under contracts that expired six years ago. At a luncheon on May 11, Comcast Senior Vice President Joe Stackhouse planned to talk on the corporate message that "Comcast Cares." But Stackhouse instead had to answer the question, "Why does the IBEW Truth Squad have a rat with your name on it outside?"

The Chicago and New York actions are a few of the many joint efforts the IBEW, CWA and AFL-CIO are staging to spotlight the country’s leading cable and broadband communications provider’s labor relations policies. Comcast’s audacious attitude toward its workers warrants such extreme measures. The company’s union avoidance tactics are legion while the overwhelming majority of its workers lack the voice to speak out against unsafe work practices and unfair treatment.

Comcast can be a reasonable employer. Local 1600, Bethehem, Pennsylvania, Business Representative Mark Chronister says that the local negotiated a decent contract for a 105-member Comcast unit in Harrisburg in October 2004. "We had to educate them on how unions think," but they have worked with us to get a fair agreement," he said. Local 98 in Philadelphia, Comcast’s headquarters city, also has a good working relationship with the company. These examples, however, are the exceptions to the rule.

The joint 50-city organizing campaign by the IBEW and the CWA questions not only the workers’ struggle for justice, but the company’s commitment to quality public service.

As Comcast executives showcased their products and services
at the Merrillville, Ind. Comcast facility, Local 21 members and
their families protested "Comcast Does Not Care" about the
community or its workers.

The unions have successfully challenged the company’s refusal to comply with Federal Communications Commission guidelines on making their files available to the public. Union activists have joined with community groups at public hearings in several target cities. They are questioning whether Comcast’s franchise agreements with municipal governments are a fair deal for taxpayers or giveaways to a company with deep pockets and allegations of buying political influence.

"Comcast has handed us a golden opportunity to link our struggle for justice and safety on the job with the customers’ right to quality service," said IBEW International President Edwin D. Hill. "Our potential allies number in the millions."

That struggle is long-term. Comcast has delayed contract talks in some cases for years, stalling negotiations to run the clock, then seeking decertification votes. The company’s leaders are generally unresponsive to union offers of good faith negotiations. Its workers pay the price while the company pulls in $20 billion in revenue last year and expands its gargantuan reach beyond the millions of subscribers it serves in 36 states.

"These people are cutthroats," said IBEW Local 827, East Windsor, New Jersey, Vice President Dave Kubert. "They just don’t want to answer to anybody."

The labor blitz landed at the company’s annual stockholders meeting in Philadelphia on June 1. Fifty union activists leafleted shareholders outside the meeting then, as shareholders themselves, went inside. Eyewitnesses said they dominated the meeting with their presence, pressing for good corporate governance and questioning why six of the company’s top officers have employment contracts yet its rank-and-file workers are blocked in their efforts to negotiate contracts in Pennsylvania and Illinois.

Two hundred IBEW members of Local 21 in Downers Grove, Illinois, have been working without a contract since Comcast purchased their unit from AT&T Broadband two years ago. "Comcast is coming out saying ‘we care,’ but they aren’t saying they hurt the community and the people in it," said Local 21 organizer Bob Przybylinski. "The workers have to choose between overtime or their families, just to pay their bills."

Members of Local 21 picketed a Comcast office on May 26 while the company demonstrated its high-tech services for municipal officials in northwest Indiana.

A large inflatable rat greeted Comcast executive Joe Stackhouse at a Chicago City Club appearance.

Occasional signs of labor-management cooperation are more the exception than the rule. After another public battle, Comcast finally signed a first agreement with Local 21 for 45 members on May 17.

In Pittsburgh, four years after more than 400 Comcast technicians voted for CWA representation, they still cannot negotiate a first contract. Despite the workers’ consistent support for the union, they have been confronted by company foot-dragging and needless quibbling by management’s lawyers. Last fall the company laid off 60 union supporters.

The public campaign against the cable giant has expanded to members of its board of directors, whom the unions are painting as hypocritical. One such board member, Judith Rodin, also serves as president of the Rockefeller Foundation, an organization that supports strategies to improve wages, employment and economic opportunities for the working poor.

In a letter to the Rockefeller Foundation’s trustees, New York City Central Labor Council President Brian McLaughlin—who is a member of IBEW Local 3—applauded those efforts, adding that the labor movement’s gains for workers have contributed to those goals. "In the age of globalization and ever-higher concentrations of wealth in the hands of a few, labor unions are often the last and most effective anti-poverty program that workers have," McLaughlin’s letter said. "Attempts to violate workers’ rights to form unions and to frustrate the collective bargaining process are akin to denying workers the material means to a life of dignity and respect."

McLaughlin urged the foundation’s trustees to convince Dr. Rodin to push Comcast to settle the contracts in Pennsylvania and Illinois.

In a three-page letter, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney wrote to board members of the mortgage giant Fannie Mae to discuss Comcast board member Kenneth Bacon’s position as senior vice president and head of Housing and Community Development at Fannie Mae. Sweeney pointed out that Bacon may be violating Fannie Mae’s business conduct, ethics, and conflicts of interest policies by promoting Comcast policies that are contrary to community development.

"Given the mission and objectives of Fannie Mae and its visibility in communities across the United States, I believe Mr. Bacon’s involvement with Comcast brings discredit to Fannie Mae," Sweeney said in the letter. "Comcast’s attack on its own employees’ freedom of association is ultimately an attack on the workers’ rights to fair wages and benefits. This, in turn, is an attack on the economic health of communities, one that stands in direct opposition to Fannie Mae’s goals."

A Philadelphia-based coalition of religious leaders is also pressing Comcast. Religious Leaders for Justice at Comcast is enlisting other members of the faith community to request a meeting with the Comcast board. Philadelphia group Area Director Rosalind Spigel said they have been encouraged by the level of interest by religious leaders. "This is an issue that really strikes a chord with people," she said. "There just doesn’t seem to be any reason not to negotiate a contract."

Local 827 members in blue T-shirts picket Comcast headquarters in downtown Philadelphia. Al Sullivan, center, and Mark Adams work out of the Comcast office in Pleasantville, New Jersey.

Terese Bouey, AFL-CIO assistant organizing director, said the IBEW and CWA are also circulating the statement with local clergy in Pittsburgh and Chicago. "It’s important workers expose the conditions under which they work and bargain and make sure people know what they are up against," she said. "Religious leaders really understand the work for justice. Sometimes it’s just a matter of asking for help."

With less than 1 percent of the cable industry organized into unions, Comcast is actively attempting to decertify some of those units that are organized and taking extreme measures to prevent the rest of its workers across the country from unionizing.

Local 827 has two organized Comcast units in New Jersey, but lost elections in Union and in Eatontown in early June.

"They are good at what they do," Kubert said of Comcast’s tenacity at keeping unions out. "They have a corporate hit squad that goes out two weeks before the election. They know our supporters. They put them in a small meeting and say we’re a bunch of thugs."

In the post-traditional telephone service, pre-wireless age, telecommunications companies are racing to capitalize and dominate emerging state-of-the-art voice, data and video technologies.

"Today, while Comcast is the industry giant others are looking to beat, most of its workers have been left along the side of the information superhighway," President Hill said. "Comcast can certainly do better by its workers."

For up-to-the-minute news on the Comcast campaign, visit www.ibew.org/eworkers.