July 2011

IBEW Steps Up Organizing at Comcast
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Comcast has a well-earned reputation as one of the most anti-union companies in the telecommunications industry. "It is the Walmart of the cable and telecommunications industry," says Downers Grove, Ill., Local 21 Business Manager Ronald Kastner, who has been trying to organize the cable provider in the Chicago area for years. "There isn't much they won't do to keep unions out."

But last spring, a group of Comcast workers in New Jersey successfully took on the company's hard-line opposition to unions, winning a small, but key victory.

In May, more than 75 employees at Comcast's Fairfield, N.J., facility made history when they ratified their first contract with the company. The new members of East Windsor Local 827 are the first ever previously unorganized Comcast workers to join a union.

"This is a company that is willing to spend millions to fight a union contract that might cost them $10,000," says Telecommunications and Broadcasting Department International Representative Kevin Curran. "To finally win one after so many years is a huge boost."

The historic victory was the culmination of an eight-year organizing campaign. "The company had tried everything to keep the union out and it was pretty successful until now," says Local 827 Business Manager William Huber.

Employees complained of having no job security or regular pay raise schedules. "It is the way most of the company works," Huber says. "If your boss likes you, you are just fine, but if he doesn't, it could mean your job."

It is no surprise then, Huber says, that the 11 employees who did not receive raises last year were the strongest union supporters.

But the breakthrough by employees in New Jersey remains a unique victory at a company known for doing anything to stay union free. In Chicago, workers at Comcast's South Side facility narrowly lost a hard-fought election to join Local 21 by only 13 votes in June.

"It was a battle from day one," says Local 21 organizer Dave Webster. "The company used fear to tip the vote."

He says management used every anti-union tactic there is—from daily captive audience meetings to public threats to slash bonuses and wages. "They told employees that Comcast would never agree to a union contract."

They also attacked the IBEW, singling out Webster for "excessive" pay. It's a strange argument, Webster says, from a company that gave its chief executive Brian Roberts $31 million last year.

"Roberts is one of the 10 highest paid CEOs in the country, and they want to argue that I make too much money?" Webster says.

The campaigns in New Jersey and Chicago have been carefully watched by union activists who are concerned that Comcast's anti-worker business model is increasingly setting the bar for wages and working conditions across the telecommunications industry.

"The reality is that low wages, low benefits and punishing work schedules at Comcast drag down standards for everyone," Webster says.

Race to the Bottom

Before the rise of wireless and cable, the telecommunications industry had traditionally been a bastion of unionism. Even after the breakup of the Bell System in 1984, unions remained strong, giving most workers higher-than-average wages, a solid retirement, strong health benefits and firm job security.

A 2004 American Rights at Work report—"No Bargain: Comcast and the Future of Workers' Rights in Telecommunications"—found that union technicians earn 7 to 10 percent more than their nonunion counterparts. Cable workers, who are mostly nonunion, are even worse off, earning more than a $13,000 a year less than their landline counterparts, while having a job turnover rate that is more than twice as high.

Today more than 60 percent of landline telecommunications employees are union, but increasing competition from nonunion wireless carriers and cable companies like Comcast—which has a union density of only 2 percent—is putting pressure on traditional telecoms.

In addition to being the largest cable and home Internet provider in the United States, it is now the third largest home telephone provider as triple service packages (cable, Internet and phone) displace traditional landline connections.

Huber, who is preparing for negotiations with Verizon over its East Coast contract, says the company repeatedly points to wages and benefits at Comcast as a reason for pushing cutbacks. "They tell us that they can't compete with Comcast," he says.

Carrot and Stick

Cable saw its initial growth in the early '80s just as the assault on private sector unionism was gathering steam, and Comcast has made keeping its work force union free a top priority.

Managers have resorted to a host of union-busting maneuvers to keep it that way—from dividing the work force by buying off employees through bonuses and promotions to intimidating union supporters through unfair disciplinary actions and illegal terminations.

"In preparing this report, we encountered numerous Comcast employees with strong feelings about the company's treatment of union members and supporters, who insisted on remaining anonymous out of fear that they would lose their jobs," write the authors of "No Bargain."

And while management is willing to dole out extra bonuses during an organizing drive, Comcast is quick to take them back as soon as the campaign ends. As current AT&T employee Sam Johnson, who tried to organize his Comcast unit, put it: "When the organizing stops, so do the perks."

Comcast has also been successful at throwing out contracts at newly acquired unionized companies by refusing to bargain in good faith and singling out pro-union employees for harassment, transfers and layoffs. At one former AT&T Broadband facility, the company fought Local 21 for seven years before employees forced Comcast to renew their contract. (See "Seven Year Struggle Yields Contract at Comcast in Illinois", IBEW Journal, June 2006)

While the former AT&T workers were able to squeak out a victory, they have been the exception. Starting with seven Comcast units in the early 2000s, Local 21 is now down to only two.

Fighting Back

Comcast's hostility to unions is pushing organizers to find new ways to build public pressure on the company.

In Massachusetts, employees at Comcast's Fall River facility, dissatisfied over unfair disciplinary procedures, signed cards to join Middleboro Local 2322 last year. But instead of proceeding straight to a National Labor Relations Board election, which could expose pro-union workers to harassment by management, the two dozen technicians approached community leaders and elected officials to help prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they had a strong majority behind them.

"We have to build up enough pressure," says International Organizer Steve Smith. "We had to make the process open and public."

Local 2322 invited leading lawmakers, such as U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch, Fall River Mayor William Flanagan and Jobs with Justice activist Kim Wilson, to publicly check the list of Comcast employees against signed union authorization cards.

Lynch and Flanagan then wrote Comcast asking them to "respect the employee majority and voluntarily recognize Local 2322 as their representative." Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Jim McGovern also publically called on Comcast to recognize the union.

Management continues to refuse to negotiate but Local 2322 is still keeping up the pressure, publishing a monthly newsletter directed at Comcast workers. And in April, Fall River service technician and pro-union activist Christine Dexter attended a White House forum sponsored by the Labor Department, where she explained why she and her co-workers were fighting for the right to organize.

"We want to sit down with [Comcast] and begin to collectively bargain for the things we think a union can help us with," she told the gathering. "Like job security and a voice in the workplace."

"The fight to keep good jobs in telecommunications starts at Comcast," says Telecommunications and Broadcasting Department Director Martha Pultar. "Comcast's low road model of worker relations could easily become the template for the entire industry unless employees and community leaders stand up."

Union activists worry that Comcast's low-road workers' rights model will spread throughout the telecommunications industry.

Workers at Comcast's Fairfield, N.J., facility signed their first-ever contract with the company in May. Standing from left are Edgardo Negron, Heath Lamont Stephen and Guillermo Acevedo, with Local 827 negotiator Dennis Slaman and Business Agent Georgeanne Scarpelli. Sitting from left are Comcast's vice president for labor relations, Patrick Battel; Local 827 Business Manager William Huber; and Comcast's labor relations director, Russell Cook.