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Spectrum workers in fight against greed

New York Teacher
Striking workers picket outside a Brooklyn Spectrum store.
Courtesy of Derek Jordan

Striking workers picket outside a Brooklyn Spectrum store.

“All we want is to keep what we have,” says striking Spectrum field technician David Jacoby. “We’re not asking for more money, not asking for more vacation days, not asking for anything.”

Had Charter Communication, Inc., which acquired Time Warner Cable in 2016 and renamed it Spectrum, simply maintained the status quo, Jacoby says, “virtually nobody would have voted to strike.”

Instead, 1,800 Spectrum workers in New York and northern New Jersey, all members of Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, are five months into a job action against the cable giant to keep the company from destroying their retirement and health benefits, unfairly disciplining workers and threatening job security.

The UFT has passed a resolution in support of the striking workers, contributed to their strike fund and denounced the use of nonunion contractors to do work that should be performed by striking union technicians.

When Charter acquired Time Warner, it inherited a dispute that goes back to 2013, the last time Local 3 had a contract. Since then, workers have been operating under that expired agreement. A federal mediator is now involved in the negotiations, but talks are at a stalemate.

“The company hasn’t budged,” says Derek Jordan, the business representative for the local’s cable division. “Their list includes all givebacks, and there’s really nothing to work with.”

Even as the company puts the squeeze on its employees, the value of Charter stock rose 17 percent between the end of 2016 and June 30. In a letter, UFT President Michael Mulgrew urged Charter Chairman Thomas M. Rutledge, who earned $98.5 million in 2016, to share that success with employees and “recognize the value of your workforce.”

But striking workers, including warehouse and service technicians and engineering department employees, believe Charter is trying to break the union.

Survey technician Troy Walcott, a 20-year company veteran and shop steward who participates in negotiations, says Charter is targeting whatever “could hurt the union,” namely medical and pension benefits. It wants to stop contributing to both.

The workers, who service field equipment that keeps phones, internet and cable running for about 2.5 million subscribers, weren’t willing to let that happen “without a fight,” says Jacoby.

Medical insurance costs, including large deductibles, would come out of the pay raise that Charter has offered, Jacoby explained, and combined with the loss of pension contributions, “you’d end up losing money” as well as the protection provided by a retirement plan.

Jordan is focused on the big picture — job security. A clause in the expired contract says subcontractors must be laid off before in-house layoffs.

“Charter wants to eliminate that,” says Jordan and, without the clause, “they could lay everybody off the next day. This is union busting 101.”

Also of major concern to the union are demotions without just cause and the obstruction of promotions. Jordan says workers often are disciplined and denied the chance to advance because of conditions they can’t control — like faulty and outdated equipment that requires repeat service calls — and because of a rating system that relies heavily on things like customer satisfaction, which often hinges on issues with that same equipment.

Spectrum makes promises it knows it can’t deliver with its equipment, the union says. In February, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed a lawsuit against Spectrum charging that the company defrauds customers by lying about its internet speed and reliability.

Overall, there has been a movement away from customer service, once a company hallmark, Walcott says. “Everything started to be about numbers and not about personnel or people,” he says.

As a shop steward, Walcott hears about members’ hardships — “guys who are getting put out of their homes; people who have children with special needs and don’t know what’s going to happen; members who can’t understand why the company is doing this.”

But Jordan says the bottom line is clear: “Everyone just wants to have a resolution to this strike, a fair contract. People just want to go back to work.”