East Strikes

#SpectrumStrike: Worker’s Forgotten Fight Against Spectrum Cable

In 2016 the Federal Communications Commission announced their approval of a merger between Charter Communications, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks. (1) Under the agreement Charter Communications would have majority control and cable systems would operate under their Spectrum Cable subsidiary. Little did anyone know this merger would lead to the longest ongoing worker’s strike in the United States more than five years later.

On March 28, 2017, approximately 1800 workers represented by IBEW Local 3 would go out on strike against Spectrum cable across the five boroughs of New York City. (2) The workers had a variety of complaints, most contentious of which being Charter/Spectrum’s insistence on funneling workers out of long held union run pension and medical plans into company run 401k and medical plans. In December 2018, Local 3 Business Manager, Chris Erikson was quoted as saying, “They came to the table — and the first proposal in the negotiations was to eliminate the union pension fund and the union benefits.” (3) One rank-and-file member stressed to me that Charter/Spectrum also proposed to remove a subcontracting clause from the Collective Bargaining Agreement, allowing the outsourcing of their work to non-union contractors. Throughout the course of the strike Charter/Spectrum has subjected workers to draconian surveillance and have conditioned any attempt at returning to work with workers providing written proof of their resignation from Local 3’s bargaining unit. (4) In February 2019 due to these infractions an NLRB Regional Director ruled that the classification of the strike would change from an “Economic Strike” to an “Unfair Labor Practices (ULP) Strike.” (4) In May 2019 the union was then notified that the NLRB General Council overturned the Regional Director’s ruling to convert the strike to a ULP strike while denying the union the right to prove their case. (4) This ruling would have a negative effect for striking workers in a union decertification vote and has been appealed by IBEW Local 3. (6)

While the NLRB was determining strike status a petition for an election to decertify the union would be filed. This petition was filed by a former supervisor who was demoted to technician in order to file for the election. (5) After several grievances on voter eligibility an NLRB Regional Director ruled that 481 still striking workers, 545 replacement workers, and 334 former strikers were eligible to vote on decertification. (6) The decertification vote continues to be stalled by various appeals within the NLRB.

Throughout the course of the strike workers have found a couple of unorthodox ways to take the fight to Charter/Spectrum. One such way has been a fight to strip Charter/Spectrum of their Franchise Agreement which allows them to operate as a cable/internet provider in NYC. In July 2018 it was believed this effort would prevail when the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) revoked their approval of the Charter/Time Warner merger. (7) Unfortunately, this decision was appealed and in April 2019 Charter/ Spectrum came to an agreement with the New York State Department of Public Service to continue operating in NY. (8) The PSC would later approve the deal. (9) At a rally commemorating 1000 days on strike several NYC Council members vowed to vote against renewing the Franchise Agreement as it was set to expire in July 2020. (10)  In February 2020, the NYC Mayor’s office ruled that Charter/Spectrum would be allowed to continue operations after the expiration of their Franchise Agreement until the renewal process was resolved. (11) This process is still ongoing.

The other method used by striking workers has been to organize a community run Worker’s COOP to run as an ISP to compete against Charter/Spectrum. (12) This effort was kicked off with an unsuccessful campaign to urge NY public officials to fund a Municipal ISP service. (13) They have since turned to the COOP model and have former People’s Choice Communications (14) which has thus far built out a Wi-Fi network in underserved communities in the Bronx. (15)

In recent months, I have been in contact with several rank and file striking members. They’ve expressed a deep frustration with how the strike has unfolded thus far. When asked about the plight of the rank-and-file worker one anonymous member told me, “Strike benefits dried up years ago, however most of us are still paying union dues and many have temp positions in other divisions withing Local 3.” I also asked if they knew if the union had plans in the works for any actions planned to mark 5 years on strike in March and they all hadn’t heard of any. As of this writing we have since crossed the 5-year mark without any actions planned. There has also been no mention of the worker’s struggle from the local media or elected officials. As workers, we must stand with the members of IBEW Local 3 as continue their fight against Charter/Spectrum in NYC.

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