Years of legwork — along with the sale of a telecommunications giant — has led to hundreds of new members for the IBEW and its local unions on Long Island and in New Jersey.
Technicians and Construction Department employees working at Altice USA locations in Bethpage and Freeport, N.Y., voted for representation by Long Island, N.Y., Local 1049 mid-2019. Technicians at the same company's facility in Morris, N.J., voted to join East Windsor, N.J., Local 827 in late 2018. The two Long Island facilities have ratified a first contract, adding 126 new members. Contract negotiations are ongoing at the New Jersey location.
"Our new members know the company could just change the rules on them without a contract," said Local 1049 organizer William O'Leary, who led the campaigns on Long Island. "That's what it had been doing. Now they have a collective bargaining agreement, something which had never happened before. This will enable them to have a voice in the workplace. They can't take away the benefits they've had all these years just because management wants to save a little money."
In 2018, Local 827 successfully organized technicians at Altice USA facilities in the New Jersey cities of Newark, Lodi and Oakland and negotiated first contracts at all three places.
The effort came after Netherlands-based Altice purchased Cablevision for $17.7 billion in 2016, making its subsidiary Altice USA the fourth-largest cable television company in the United States. The IBEW tried for years to organize the notoriously anti-union Cablevision in New Jersey and on Long Island, but the work wasn't in vain, said Joe Mastrogiovanni, Third District lead telecommunications organizer.
Employees at facilities throughout those areas remembered the time and effort the local unions had put in, he said. So, when Altice came in and started doing things like cutting out promised bonuses, reducing vacation time and sending more work to independent contractors, the IBEW had the upper hand when those workers started seeking out representation, he said.
"It was just a different mentality when Altice came in," Local 827 business agent and organizing committee head Joe Lambert said. "They started cutting and slashing and taking things away from the workers. They just had enough and wanted to put an end to it. They realized the only way to do that was with a collective bargaining unit."
Woodley Bien-Aime has worked for Cablevision and Altice USA for a total of 13 years, now serving as a service technician out of the Bethpage facility. An immigrant from Haiti, Bien-Aime said he always voted for union representation during past organizing drives but never took an active role in them.
That changed after Altice took over. Bien-Aime saw the changes and became a member of the volunteer organizing committee. He later served on the contract negotiation committee and is now a steward.
"This time, I felt like I had to be part of leadership," he said. "It was getting crazy. I felt like if I was not part of it, it was not going to work."
Bien-Aime said many of his colleagues who expressed reservation about union representation ended up voting for it. That was due in part to Altice's tactics, which included captive meetings with management to hear about the perceived problems with union membership.
But it also had to do with the work of organizer O'Leary, Business Manager Ronald Bauer and others at Local 1049, which separated the IBEW from other unions that might have showed interest in organizing them.
"They might come around and give us some [request-for-a-vote cards] but they never got involved like 1049 did," Bien-Aime said. "They tried really hard for us. It's a really good union."
Mastrogiovanni said organizing work also was aided by Altice workers at unorganized facilities hearing how well the IBEW was representing them at the newly organized garages.
The newly ratified contracts have improved wages and safety conditions and allow Altice to hire outside contractors to perform work only when it does not lead to job losses for the contract-covered employees. IBEW research revealed Altice made hiring outside contractors a priority even at its European locations, he said.
"Once one garage organized, the world didn't blow up like Altice said it would," said Mastrogiovanni, adding that Third District International Representative Brian Brennan also played a major role in the organizing campaigns.
"They got a contract. The locals did a great job in negotiating the subcontractor language. We told [the Altice employees] from the beginning that once we won the election, we would be ready to negotiate a contract immediately, no matter what the company said."
Organizing in telecommunications has been more difficult in recent years due to consolidation in the industry and improved to technology leading to a loss of traditional jobs. Mastrogiovanni, for one, thinks the IBEW's work at Altice will help change that.
"I think it's going to show the telecommunications industry as a whole that these companies are obliged to negotiate in good faith," he said. "When we move forward in organizing now, these new members are going to talk to their colleagues and say nothing but good things about the IBEW. We put our money where our mouth is."
Both Lambert and O'Leary each said their business managers — Bob Speer at Local 827 and Bauer at Local 1049 — were extremely supportive of the organizing work.
"Our message to the workers was that we've been doing this for a long time and we're not going anywhere," O'Leary said. "We want to make things better for you. They were all very receptive."