There was no picket line New Year’s Eve outside the West 23rd St. New York corporate offices of Charter/Spectrum, comprised by electricians from Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which a week earlier marked the 1,000 day of its strike against the giant cable provider with a rally at City Hall that included several City Council Members threatening to revoke the firm’s municipal franchise.
The absence of protesters on the overcast, chilly morning had less to do with the weather than with the reality that the fate of the walkout, and Local 3’s ability to negotiate for the 1,800 electricians, rested less with public opinion at this point than with the National Labor Relations Board, which is considering a decertification petition brought against the union claiming lack of fair representation.
The petition was filed on May 10, 2018, more than 13 months after the strike began on March 28, 2017 by an employee, Bruce Carberry, who had previously been demoted from a supervisor’s job, making him eligible to join the union. Local 3 officials viewed this set of circumstances as suspicious, particularly because the petition came to a head when it appeared the two sides had been close to agreement on a new contract.
As a source familiar with the negotiations put it, “We were at the half-yard-line a year ago, and then Spectrum decided it wasn’t in their interest to continue negotiations with the union.”
Union Yielded on Pension for ‘Unborn’
A big sticking point in the talks had been whether new employees would be allowed to join the Local 3 pension plan with Charter/Spectrum, but that reportedly was resolved when the union agreed to have future hires enrolled in a 401(k) program that would be less costly to the employer.
The talks had advanced to that point after months of pressure that was applied by top elected officials including Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio, as well as the AFL-CIO New York City Central Labor Council and the State AFL-CIO. After the state Public Service Commission threatened to sanction Charter/Spectrum in the summer of 2018 for failing to make good on commitments to provide adequate broadband service to rural areas upstate, Mr. Cuomo that December urged New Yorkers to boycott the firm’s flagship city cable outlet, NY1. Union lobbying that fall had persuaded local officials from the Mayor to city and state legislators not to appear on the station’s programs—most notably “Inside City Hall”—after a picket line went up outside NY1’s Chelsea offices.
That led to the appointment of Hotel Trades Council President Peter Ward to serve as a mediator in the discussions, which helped bridge the gap between the two sides to the point where a deal seemed imminent last year. Except for the fact that, the union source said, “The company engaged in these underhanded tactics ‘demoting’ this manager.”
That sequence of events would seem transparent enough that NLRB officials would see it as a subterfuge and reject the decertification petition. But the appointees to the board under President Trump were conspicuously pro-management compared to those who served during Barack Obama’s administration, and so voting on the petition was allowed to proceed last February, with the results having remained under seal.
Last August, NLRB Regional Director John J. Walsh ruled on which ballots should count, and to its chagrin, Local 3 learned that many of the strikers were excluded because they had been out of work for so long, while replacement workers who had been brought in by Spectrum during the two-plus years of the walkout were deemed eligible. This meant that while 666 Local 3 members who voted in the decertification balloting were deemed ineligible, more than 600 employees who had replaced them would have their votes count, along with 332 former strikers who had returned to work.
Local 3 argued that Charter/Spectrum had committed multiple improper labor practices that both affected the strike and influenced worker sentiment. It provided the NLRB with an audio recording of a meeting the company held with employees shortly before voting began early last year in which the workers were promised raises and fringe-benefit improvements if the union was decertified. The recording also contained alleged threats by management about penalties electricians would face if they voted to remain under Local 3’s representation. The union contended that workers had been told that attendance at the meeting was mandatory.
Could Nullify ‘Decert’ OK
Charter/Spectrum officials have denied making either promises of better treatment or threats of retaliation tied to the outcome of the vote. Regional Director Walsh said if the recording could be verified, it might “warrant setting aside the results of the election.” But that issue, and the other unfair- labor-practice charges lodged by Local 3 have been placed on hold pending the release of the results of the decertification vote.
If a majority of the employees deemed eligible to have their ballots counted opted to stay with Local 3, the union charges would become moot; if they voted to decertify, all those charges would be adjudicated before a final decision was rendered.
At the time of the interim decision, a company spokesman, John Bonomo, was quoted as saying, “We’re confident we presented lawful, truthful, and appropriate information to employees about the election.”
A story posted on bloomberglaw.com at the time noted that Mr. Walsh “agreed that unfair labor practices were likely perpetrated by Spectrum when it refused to reinstate some striking workers who wished to return to their jobs. But those actions were ‘insufficient to find that the economic strike converted to an unfair labor practice strike,’ Walsh wrote in his decision.”
Delays Hurt Strikers More
It’s not clear why the results of the vote have not been released in the five months since the interim ruling. Any delay in the process, which also pushes back a possible settlement if Local 3 ultimately retains bargaining rights, works to the advantage of Charter/Spectrum and to the detriment of those who have remained on strike and in most cases taken lesser-paying jobs with other employers to get by financially.
Mr. Carberry’s name on the petition, notwithstanding his demotion from a managerial position at the company that moved him into the union after the strike began, gives Charter/Spectrum plausible deniability that it was behind the decertification push. A company would engineer that process for either of two reasons: gain leverage in contract negotiations or as a vehicle to eradicate a union it viewed as too aggressive on behalf of its rank and file.
Based on what is known of the negotiations that came just short of a finalized contract after Mr. Ward did a labor version of shuttle diplomacy between the two sides, Local 3 gave significant ground by agreeing that future hires it represented at Charter/Spectrum would not become part of the pension plan. The 401(k) coverage means management’s contributions would be based on what employees put in from their own salaries, rather than having a percentage of salary multiplied by years of service comprise the largest part of the payout under the traditional defined-benefit pension allowance.
And so, having reportedly gotten the union to agree to forsake pensions for future members in favor of a less-costly obligation for management, it’s a reasonable inference that, once the outside pressure and the boycott of NY1 subsided early last year, Charter/Spectrum decided to use the decert process as a way to bust out Local 3.
Will Council Play Hardball?
It does not mean that the union is without ways to exert pressure on the company even if the NLRB sides with management, as Trump appointees to the board have often done over the past three years. Council Members including Costa Constantinides, Rory Lancman and Justin Brannan who spoke during the Dec. 23 rally at City Hall seemed inclined to oppose renewal of Charter/Spectrum’s city franchise when it comes up for renewal in July if a new contract wasn’t in place. Because they are not up for re-election until next year, they would have no immediate concerns about appearing on NY1 as guests.
Whether Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who is expected to be among the leading contenders in the 2021 election to succeed Mr. de Blasio, would want to step out that boldly is another story.
One mystery in the dispute is that U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—who used the dispute involving Amazon creating a corporate headquarters in Queens to claim more credit than she probably deserved for the company’s decision last February to abandon the move—has not aligned with the strikers since they sought her support following her June 2018 primary victory over veteran Congressman Joe Crowley, even before she gained office with her general-election victory that November.
By the end of that year, she was being chided by the New York Post for not joining in urging a boycott, even after Local 3 tweeted, “2AOC, will you join elected officials from across the city, State and country—including the Mayor, Governor &@BernieSanders—in support of striking workers from a Queens-based union? Asking for 1,800 friends.”
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign manager, Rebecca Rodriguez, did not return a call seeking an explanation for her absence from the fray.
‘Internet for All’ Card
There is another possible battleground that the city could use. Not long after Mr. Walsh’s interim report on the conflict between Local 3 and Charter/Spectrum was issued early last August, the union’s business manager, Chris Erikson, published an op-ed in the Daily News headlined, “Internet for all in New York City: The case for municipal broadband in the five boroughs.”
He cited a recent report by City Comptroller Scott Stringer estimating that 29 percent of all city households—nearly one million—had no broadband internet service. Those who did, Mr. Erikson stated, included thousands of Charter/Spectrum subscribers who “are stuck paying high prices for a slow network, while unwittingly enriching a corporation that has engaged in anti-worker practices that have left their striking employees out in the cold for over two years.”
Noting the scheduled expiration of Charter/Spectrum’s city franchising agreement this summer, he continued, “And fortunately, there is an innovative alternative that could be a game-changer for union members, businesses and consumers alike—Internet for All, a public option for broadband service.”
It could be put into play, the Local 3 business manager wrote, by having the state and city provide funding to construct “a high-speed broadband network that would be built and operated by a public agency. Consumers would then be charged a reasonable fee to obtain access to the network. Like a public option for health-care consumers, this system is designed to promote competition. As an alternative in a menu of choices available in the marketplace, Internet for All would provide an incentive for existing telecom giants to reduce skyrocketing bills and improve subpar service.”
He noted that Chattanooga, Tn. had become the first municipality to create a citywide fiber-optic network, and its public-broadband system allowed customers to “browse the internet at a speed that’s 166 times faster than the standard download service offered by Charter/Spectrum in New York City.”
Test of Political Will
Would such a move be politically feasible, given the army of well-connected lobbyists—who have ties to top Democratic officials in the city and state including Speaker Johnson, the Governor, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and State Attorney General Letitia James—retained by Charter/Spectrum?
That remains to be seen. But unless the NLRB bucks its recent trend and rules against the company—a process that won’t begin until the ballots are unsealed from a vote whose ground rules figure to skew results in favor of management—Local 3 and its holdout members have few other realistic options as the strike that could and should have been settled nearly a year ago creeps closer to completing its third year.
And the fate of the union at Charter/Spectrum has implications that go beyond a single cable operator, large as it may be. As Central Labor Council President Vinny Alvarez told a crowd at a December 2018 rally, given that 25 percent of the workforce within the five boroughs is unionized—the highest percentage in the nation—”if certain things can happen here in New York City, it’s a problem for every working person throughout the country.”
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