A sign posted during a rally by New York Local 3 members during a rally at a Charter/Spectrum payment center in Brooklyn on Aug. 2.  

Charter/Spectrum is doing just fine. The company took in $29 billion in revenue in 2016 and the stock price has gone up about 70 percent during the last year

Charter/Spectrum CEO Tom Rutledge, who was the highest-paid CEO in the U.S. last year. Charter/Spectrum refuses to bargain in good faith with Local 3 .
Photo provided by AdvertisingWeek via Flickr/Creative Commons

Yet it continues to make demands that would devastate about 1,800 members of New York Local 3, who have been on strike against the company since March 28.

Charter/Spectrum has refused to come to the table despite the entreaties of a federal mediator. It has ignored New York City political leaders, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, who called on the company to negotiate a fair contract.

“It’s pretty draconian what they are trying to do,” said Kevin Curran, an international representative in the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Department. “If they want to attack everything you have, it seems the end game is to get rid of the union instead of getting concessions.”

Now, IBEW members around the country are helping out. They started handing out leaflets at Charter/Spectrum bill-pay centers in mid-July, letting customers know that while cable and internet rates go up, the company isn’t sharing the profit with employees or consumers.

“Any pressure points that we can put on the company to get them back to the table is appreciated,” said Local 3 Business Manager Chris Erikson. “I am sure they are feeling the heat. The public is becoming more aware of what Charter/Spectrum is actually doing.”

One pressure point may be coming from New York City officials. Many believe Charter/Spectrum is violating its franchise agreement with the city by bringing in workers from outside New York during the strike. The mayor’s office has initiated an audit of the company. The agreement expires in 2020.

“What’s happening here is just fundamentally unfair to the workers,” de Blasio told New York radio station WNYC. “My strong message to Charter/Spectrum is to come to the table and resolve this.”

“I’m not going to prejudge that investigation, but if negative findings occur, it can have a very real impact on the future of Charter/Spectrum’s business with New York City and their ability to be here and do their work here,” the mayor said.

Members of Local 3 holding signs during their Aug. 2 rally in Brooklyn.

Curran said it’s always preferable to work with a company, noting the five-year contract agreement the IBEW reached with AT&T earlier this year with no public acrimony.

But Charter/Spectrum’s refusal to negotiate is making that difficult.

“We would much rather be partners with companies we do business with, but IBEW members are battling a corporation that has little regard not just for its employees’ welfare, but also for the customers it serves,” International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said. “That’s disheartening, but it it’s a battle we can win.”

The company was known nationally as Charter, but changed its name to Spectrum after merging with Bright House Networks and Time Warner Cable, New York City’s longtime cable franchise, last year.

Local 3 member Karega Bennett is a field technician for Charter/Spectrum. A U.S. Navy veteran, Bennett was hired by Time Warner in 2010. He remembers being known as the “kid who can fix anything” while growing up in Queens. He thought working with his hands would be perfect for him.

“It’s not a job for me,” Bennett said. “It’s a career. I truly enjoy it.”

But as the strike entered its fifth month, he’s wondering if he will have to find a new job. Bennett has found temporary work delivering pizza and working security at concerts. He’s also been active in Local 3 activities during the strike, taking part in rallies and helping whenever asked.

That’s helped him cope with the stress, he said. Without it, Bennett isn’t sure how he would handle the uncertainty. He remains loyal to Local 3, saying whatever raise Comcast/Spectrum might offer won’t come close to matching what it wants to take away.

“All we are asking is to keep our benefits at what we have,” he said. “Anyone paying attention to what is going on with medical costs and the Affordable Care Act knows how expensive it is. Without my union benefits, even visiting the doctor is out of the question.”

Charter/Spectrum will not back off its initial demands, which call for the:

  • Elimination of the current health plan, in which the company pays for most of the costs, and instituting a plan that puts the financial burden on employees.
  • Elimination of company contributions to the pension and medical reimbursement funds.
  • Elimination of overtime pay on Saturday and Sunday and the reduction of paid holidays.
  • Flexibility to subcontract work normally done by bargaining unit employees. 

“Many employers start negotiations with crazy proposals, but when you get into negotiations, you find some common ground,” Curran said. “What they’re basically telling the local is ‘We’re not negotiating.’”

Erikson noted that Local 3 had 40 years of fair collective bargaining with Time Warner and its predecessors. Charter/Spectrum's actions are “nothing but corporate greed,” he said.

“These are trying times for the Local 3 members on strike and their families, but this is about fairness and justice,” he said. “This is a fight they must win not only for themselves, but for all union members fighting to protect the progress that we have attained and to hold onto the high benefits that we have earned.”

Bennett says one of the things he enjoys most is learning that a customer has contacted management to tell it how good a job he’s done. Charter/Spectrum probably needs more of that.

It routinely scores near the bottom in customer service surveys of pay-TV providers. Local 3 officials say the company knowingly sends technicians on service calls with substandard equipment and disciplines them if they fail to fix the problem.

Charter/Spectrum CEO Tom Rutledge was paid $98.5 million last year and was the highest paid CEO in the country, according to the New York Times. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sued the company earlier this year for reneging on a promise to upgrade internet speeds. A similar lawsuit was filed in California. The Missouri attorney general sued in 2015, alleging Charter/Spectrum made telemarketing calls to consumers on the state’s Do Not Call list.

IBEW members can show their support for Local 3’s striking members by signing a petition asking New York City officials to revoke Charter/Spectrum’s franchise agreement. They also can file a complaint with the New York Public Service Commission.

Bennett says the last few months have been depressing, but he’ll be excited to get back to work when a fair contract is negotiated.

“People appreciate it when a guy comes into their home and he knows what he’s talking about,” he said. “I am not there to sell you anything. I am there to fix it. That’s what really drives me.”