In what could turn out to be a ground breaking event, Brooklyn Cablevision workers last week voted to join CWA Local 1109. The cable industry is largely unorganized, and Cablevision conducted an aggressive anti-union campaign to keep it that way, but when all the votes were counted, 67 percent of those voting voted “yes” for the union.
“I’ve waited 13 years for this,” said Cablevision technician Clarence Adams. “United, as members of Communications Workers of America, we now have the power to negotiate a fair contract that will give us the dignity and respect on the job we deserve.”
The union campaign began last fall when workers contacted CWA and asked for help in organizing a union. One of the first orders of business was to create an in-house organizing committee that could conduct a worker-to-worker organizing drive on the job.
Once Cablevision, which reported $361 million in profits for 2010 but didn’t pay federal income taxes, found out about the organizing drive, it hired the union avoidance firm of Jackson Lewis and began holding mandatory meetings at which company representatives said that the union was corrupt and only wanted workers’ dues.
Some workers started wearing red CWA bracelets to work as a sign of their support for the union and to show solidarity with each other. Cablevision managers soon started paying close attention to them.
Union supporters say that they were denied overtime; others say that they were harassed in other ways. Steve Ashurst told the New York Daily News that we was threatened with demotion from his job of training new hires for supporting the union. “I saw it as vindictive,” Ashurst said. “I saw it as retaliation for my stance.”
But the workers fought back with an aggressive campaign of their own aimed at building worker confidence in their ability to take on the cable giant. To counter the mandatory anti-union staff meetings, the union proposed an open debate between the company and union representatives.
New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio agreed to host the event, which was scheduled to take place on January 11. When Cablevision workers arrived at the debate to hear both sides of the story, they found the seat that was supposed to be occupied by the company representative vacant.
De Blasio told those present, including union representatives sitting to his left, who were prepared to debate the merits of unionization, that he was sorry that Cablevision chose not to participate and called their decision a mistake.
On Martin Luther King Day, CWA and Cablevision workers held a rally at Madison Square Garden, where Cablevision owner James Dolan, who also owns the New York Knicks of the NBA, has an office. At the rally, local elected officials and community leaders addressed the crowd urging Cablevision to back off its anti-union efforts.
At one of the public meetings held by the union, the Reverend Al Sharpton referred to the legacy of King who died supporting the right of workers to join a union. “Dr. King fought side by side with workers, raising his voice in unity with theirs. We need to stand with the Cablevision 99 percent as they seek the opportunity to vote for a union in an intimidation- and harassment-free environment.”
The organizing drive was sparked by a number of grievances by the largely African-American and Caribbean workers. They cited arbitrary discipline, management favoritism, inadequate health care, and a 401(k) savings plan that didn’t provide a secure retirement.
But most of all they complained about the low pay, which on the average is about one-third less than the pay of a CWA member at Verizon. “We need a living wage so we can take care of our families,” said a Cablevision worker named Jerome to Labor Press, which didn’t give his last name. “We shouldn’t face a horrible choice between paying the oil bill or buying our children’s medicine.”
While Cablevision workers were having trouble paying their bills, Cablevision paid departing Chief Operations Officer Tom Rutledge $28 million in 2010.
“Let America know, let big corporations know that we’re not going to stand for it anymore,” said Cablevision worker Lawrence Hendrickson before the election took place. “We’re tired of their greed, we’re tired of their taking everything and giving us nothing. It’s time for us to stand up for our families and loved ones and to take back what’s ours”