September 25, 2017

Public-Employee Unions Take to Streets Over Standoff on Spectrum Contract

A LONG MARCH, WITH NO BRIDGE IN SIGHT: Striking members of Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers made their case on each side of the Brooklyn Bridge and at points in between in trying to raise public awareness about their six-month strike against Charter Spectrum, which was triggered by the cable company’s attempt to sharply reduce fringe benefits while offering what it called a generous pay raise. Photo: The Chief-Leader/Rebecca White

‘THEIR FIGHT IS OUR FIGHT’: Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch was among the public-employee-union leaders supporting striking electrical workers in their dispute with cable giant Charter Spectrum. Referring to the company’s effort to curtail pension benefits in favor of a 401(k) plan and pare health coverage, he said that if those efforts succeeded, he could envision city officials being ‘at my doorstep tomorrow’ seeking similar concessions. Photo: The Chief-Leader/Rebecca White

A broad coalition of public- and private-sector unions turned out several thousand supporters last week for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3, which has been on strike against cable provider Charter Spectrum for close to six months.

On Sept. 18 crowds jammed first Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn and then Foley Square in lower Manhattan to hear Governor Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio, and Richard Trumka, the national president of the AFL-CIO, blast the cable pro­vi­der’s CEO, Tom Rutledge, who made close to $100 million last year but has sought to cut retirement benefits for the striking workers.

The union solidarity came as many of Local 3’s 1,800 members and their families were facing foreclosure or eviction after months of being without their regular paychecks. “The members are holding up, but morale is low and we are working a lot of channels to resolve this,” said Derek Jordan, Local 3’s business representative, in an interview. “People are losing their houses. People are being taken to court over their co-op payments, and people are finding temporary jobs.”

A ‘Generous Offer’?

In a statement, the cable provider maintained it had made a generous offer. “Charter is offering Local 3 a generous compensation package that includes an average 22-percent wage increase—some employees up to a 55-percent wage increase—and comprehensive retirement and health benefits, including a 401(k) that provides a dollar-for-dollar match up to 6 percent of eligible pay,” the statement said. “This competitive offer will have a positive, lasting impact on employees’ standard of living and allows us to grow a well-paid, highly skilled workforce for the benefit of our customers.”

According to the union’s website, however, the cable company wants to eliminate its pension and hospitalization-plan contributions, annuity/HRA contributions, dental coverage, the company 401(k), all personal days including those already accrued, payout of unused sick time, and the representation of members by their shop steward. It wants the right to subcontract-out service and all bargaining-unit work.

The company is the second-largest and fastest-growing cable company in the nation. It was the successor to Time Warner, which it bought last year for $70 billion.

Before the rally and march across the Brooklyn Bridge got underway, Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch said in an interview that public- and private-sector unions faced the same challenges. “Management practices their techniques on every worker. They try to say to these workers in the cable company ‘give back your pension,’ ‘give back your health care’ to get a raise today,” he said. “We should be able feed our family today and tomorrow after we move to retirement. The city does the same thing to us. So we have to stand together as a union to stop it here because they will use it at my door­step tomorrow.”

‘Our Hearts With Workers’

He continued, “You will look here at this strike line; you’ll see our members in uniform are on one side of the barrier and the workers on the other, but our hearts are with the workers. We have a job to do, but we know their fight is our fight. So we will fight right along with you. What you will see is the brothers and sisters in uniform high-fiving the strikers as they march across this bridge. Regardless of wheth­er we wear a uniform or hardhat or an eight-point cap, it is all the same fight, and we are here to join it.”

In Cadman Plaza, the emotional high point came when Mr. Cuomo took the stage and delivered an eight-min­ute broadside attacking the national erosion of “respect for the working men and women” who have actually lost ground in terms of wages as the concentration of wealth at the top has accelerated. “What we have seen is, in terms of the real wages of working men and women in the middle class, [they] have gone backwards over the past 20 years…In the 1980s, CEOs earned on average 34 times more than a worker. Today the CEOs earn 271 times what the workers are making.”

‘Trying to Destroy Unions’

The Governor, who is running for re-election next year but has also been reported to be contemplating a run for the presidency, put the Local 3 strike in a national frame: “It is the union that is the equalizing force at the bargaining table, and that’s why corporate America is trying to destroy the unions. That’s why they are trying to break unions all over the country. That’s why they want to see the Supreme Court end the public-employee unions as we know it. That’s why they want to defund the Department of Labor. But, my friends, it is not going to happen.”

Mr. Cuomo got loud cheers when he recounted how earlier in the month the state’s Public Service Commission and the cable company had agreed that Charter Spectrum would pay a $13-million penalty for failing to meet the terms of its commitments to upgrade cable service when it took over Time Warner’s franchise. “I want to know how are they going to improve customer service without the workforce that knows how to provide customer service?” Mr. Cuomo asked. “I am going to hold them to every letter, the spirit of that document, and if they don’t get their act together and fulfill that agreement, they are going to be out of the State of New York.”

Labor Revival?

“This is not the end,” he continued. “This is the beginning. And what is happening here today is the labor movement is coming together in a way it hasn’t come together in decades. And it is right that it happens in New York, because the labor movement started here at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire where we realized that workers have to stand up, because if it is was just up to corporate management, they don’t give a damn.”

After Mr. Cuomo finished, the Cadman Plaza throng walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to join a crowd already assembled at Foley Square. Al Ruggerio, 59, a striking member of Local 3 walking across the bridge, said the turnout was a much-needed lift for his spirits. “It is nice to see all the other unions are behind us and they know this could happen to them,” he said. “It’s not right. We have been out there struggling just to feed our families.”

On the Foley Square side of the rally, Mayor de Blasio took his turn blasting Charter Spectrum.

“It makes no sense that there is a CEO anywhere that makes almost $100 million,” said Mr. de Blasio. “That makes no sense when working people are just scraping to get by. You would think the CEO would say, ‘how do we give your fair share?’ But all he is saying is ‘how do we take away what’s yours?’ Now I’ll tell you something we have made clear time and again: If Mr. Rutledge wants to be a good citizen, he can come down to City Hall. We will mediate...Come down to City Hall and bargain with this union.

“But every time, he doesn’t show up. Every time, the company doesn’t put anything on the table. Well, then it’s time to get louder, isn’t it?” the Mayor asked. “If they won’t give you peace, you don’t give them peace.”

‘Treat People Decently’

He referred to the immediate hardship of the prolonged strike for Local 3 members. “They can’t do the things for their family they need to do,” he said. “They don’t know what tomorrow brings. They need all of us to be there with them. They need all of us to say, ‘we won’t give up’ because you won’t give up. We are together in this, so the City of New York, your government, stands with you. And Charter Spectrum has an easy choice to make. Come forward in good faith, treat working people with decency and dignity, or suffer the consequences if you don’t.”

In a statement issued after the rally, the company said that it had not received a counter-offer from the union since June. “We are making a choice to put our employees first, investing money in them rather than risk it on a troubled union plan. The right thing to do is pay our employees an increased wage that will have a positive and lasting effect on them and their families, provide them excellent and reliable company-sponsored health and retirement benefits, and end their exposure to union plans in financial risk because of wildly optimistic investment assumptions.”

It continued. “As is typical in these matters, politicians and other officials make their voices heard, and we certainly respect their opinions. But public events do not move the process forward; the only way to reach a new contract is for both sides to negotiate, which we stand ready to do at any time.”

Strike-Fund Infusions

Communications Workers of America Local 1180 member Helen S. Jarrett, who has 36 years on her city job, said it was alarming that, in the nation’s most pro-labor city, Local 3 had been out on strike for so long.

Public-employee unions have confirmed they are contributing to Local 3’s strike fund, which has taken a major hit. John Patrick Murphy, who leads the Brooklyn-based Branch 41 of the National Association of Letter Carriers, which donated $1,000, said, “This has gone on too long.” He said Charter Spectrum had continued to raise rates on consumers and at the same time, “they are anti-union, trying to eliminate benefits. This is not south of the Mason-Dixon line. This is New York City.”

Janella Hinds, the UFT’s vice president of academic high schools, was part of a large delegation of public-school Teachers on hand to support Local 3. “It is important that organized labor band together in this kind of fight,” she said in an interview, adding that the UFT’s rank and file had been alerted to Charter Spectrum’s interim reliance on non-union workers for customer service. “We are letting our members know that they should not allow unskilled people to come into their homes to perform services, that they demand Charter Spectrum come to the table and bargain.”