Spectrum employees and supporters gather outside of the company's Manhattan offices in June 2017. (Credit: Al Pizarro)
Like the Walt Disney Company, Charter Communications has seen its share of highs and lows in the past year.
For example, news of Charter's history-making CEO compensation comes as a group of its New York area employees, who provide Spectrum telecommunications support, continue a months-long protest of proposed changes at the company. Now in its fifth month, the strike has drawn thousands of supporters on behalf of 1800 Spectrum technicians and their families, who say Charter's new ownership of the cable operation directly threatens the group's longstanding union agreement through Local 3 IBEW, representing electrical and other workers.
Derek Jordan, who heads Local 3's Cable Division, commented by phone that his members are "exhausted and frustrated" after 137 days on the picket line, all without steady income for themselves and their families. Far from being on vacation, he said, workers have consistently been picketing Spectrum's headquarters in Stamford, CT, its main Manhattan office, and its operations facilities in Brooklyn and Queens.
In the meantime, while out-of-state workers reportedly perform many of the tasks covered by Local 3's NYC franchise agreement, union members have struggled to make ends meet on unemployment payouts while raising awareness of the conflict each day. "Everybody's been reaching out wanting to help: the mayor's office, our international chapter, local politicians," Jordan said.
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Despite offers of assistance from New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and and a federal mediator over the summer, however, negotiations between the workers and Charter reportedly show no signs of progress. "It's a shame," Jordan commented. "I've been on tons of bargaining committees, and it's never been like this."
Speaking from his office at Local 3 headquarters in Brooklyn, he noted that the group of technicians had enjoyed a 40-year bargaining relationship with previous employers in the area prior to Charter's purchase of Time Warner Cable in 2016. Jordan explained that New York City workers are among those in only a few locations to have had union status while under Time Warner control, the others being in Bergen, NJ and Hawaii.
"When I came on years ago, it was Manhattan Cable, and then it became Time Warner, and there were no issues," Jordan said. "But as soon as Charter takes over, the problems start, and we're asked to give up programs we've relied on for decades--our pension, our medical. It's union-busting, plain and simple." By email, Charter denied this claim.
While the strike's been ongoing, two service outages at Spectrum facilities reportedly resulting from vandalism have also made for some difficult days on the picket line, Jordan said. According to Jordan, both the company and some media outlets have suggested that striking workers were responsible for sabotaging the facilities, which quickly restored service in both cases. A representative for Charter said the NYPD was alerted in both cases, and will investigate whether criminal tampering with telecommunications equipment was involved. "It's been a morale-killer sometimes," Jordan said. "We the union and we the workers don't condone that, no matter what."
When asked how many days the group has been on strike for so far, Jordan leaned away from the receiver to ask union workers in the office if they had the figure.
One called out, "Who's counting? We're broke, what does it matter?"
Jordan chuckled, checked his notes, and added, " miserable days."
Counting only work days, multiplied by the eight hours in a standard (if not normal) employee workday and the average $17.27/hr that Spectrum Field Technicians reported making on Glassdoor, that means the 1800 workers have likely forgone around $23,625,000 in wages.
Glenn Britt (L), Chairman, President and CEO of Time Warner Cable, Joe Uva (2L), President and CEO of Univision Communications Inc., Tom Rutledge (2R), Chief Operating Officer of Cablevision Systems Corp., and Chase Carey, Deputy Chairman and Chief Operating Officer of News Corporation, talk before a senate hearing on the television industry and public interest on Capitol Hill November 17, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Credit: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)
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Union member Al Pizarro, who's been using his time off the clock to promote picketing efforts and prepare for the annual community nonprofit Hip Hop Parade, said the monetary toll of the strike has been heavy for workers across the board. "Most of us are on unemployment, and many of us have a mortgage to pay, or two mortgages to pay, and family members to support," he said. Recently, the group created a community relief fund to help workers whose families are fighting to meet their needs on limited income.
Pizarro said other unions have been offering financial support as the months-long strike wages on, helping to cover the modest union dues that members now struggle to afford. "We've also had letters and phone calls from around the world, expressing solidarity and telling Charter to come to the table, and had numerous politicians and leaders show up on the [picket] line."
In addition to Mayor De Blasio, in-person and remote declarations of support have also come from New York State Senator Michael DeVito, Jr., State Island Borough President James S. Oddo, and New York City Council Member Bill Perkins, whose office had received over 200 emails about Spectrum's labor practices in New York as of last month, according to a letter he sent to CEO Tom Rutledge.
Similar letters to Rutledge and the company have further confirmed support for the strikers from the United Federation of Teachers, representing more than 200,000 teachers, nurses, and other professionals in NYC, the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York City, comprising 8500 members, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, with 120,000 members in Downstate New York alone, and the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, representing nearly 50,000 active and retired NYPD officers.
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Nevertheless, Pizarro said, media coverage of the Spectrum strike has effectively been absent. Beyond being a point of discouragement for the strikers, Pizarro said this minimal coverage has raised serious concerns among union members about communication trends at the other end of the line.
"My first concern is that all all my union members are on strike, and all trying to put food on table," he said. "But my second concern is, why is there no real journalism happening here, no one investing in that journalism? Especially in a city like New York, which is known for finding out what the real deal is."
Meanwhile, the workers are continuing to reach out for acknowledgement and assistance wherever they can find it. Pizarro commented, "We try to focus on supporting each other, spreading the word on social media, and staying on the picket line."
(Credit: Al Pizarro)
New York City Major Bill de Blasio meets with Spectrum strikers during a rally in Astoria, Queens. (Credit: Al Pizarro)
According to Pizarro, the union workers are also continuously inviting Charter officials to come to the table and meet them halfway. "They're talking about taking away our medical and pension, right off the bat, and that's union medical and pension. They don't want to pay into that, but want to make us use their plan, and have us pay a lot more."
At present, Pizarro said, those benefits are covered by his union dues of $26 out of pocket. Under Charter's own medical plan, he said, he would instead see around $150 taken from his paycheck each week. "There's a big difference between what they want us to do and a fair contract. They're trying to get out of a contract we've had for 30 years."
According to Pizarro, his union has put several offers on the table relinquishing different benefits from their previous contract, but with no effect. "Charter has not budged from what they call a fair contract. It would pay nothing to JIB, and nothing to the union."
Pizarro said that many fellow union members have been worried that if they're forced to leave Local 3 and accept Charter's medical plan and employment agreement--"an agreement, not a contract," Pizarro noted--then they'll no longer be able to get their families the care they need, particularly for members with preexisting conditions such as autism and cancer.
Overall, he said, the strikers hope to have the chance to reach a mutually beneficial agreement as quickly as possible. "The union has a plan that works for us," Pizarro added. "If it didn't, we'd take the plan Charter Spectrum offered to us. But it's not a good deal for us."
In a statement, the company commented,
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. 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.
For the workforce they've got now, at least, it seems clear that executive-level successes don't always translate to dollars and sense don't the ladder.
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