Comcast systematically squeezing out unions

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

All that Communications Workers of America (CWA) wanted at first was to win for cable television and broadband internet workers the same union protections that many unionized telephone company workers enjoy.

But after several years of losing union battles with cable giant Comcast, CWA is realizing that until the United States changes its labor laws, it will be difficult for American workers to exercise their right to unionize. Along the way, CWA, the union that used to bargain with Bell, has become a critic of monopoly, and a welcome ally to local government regulators and consumer groups.

Comcast is the biggest cable provider in the United States, with operations in 35 states serving over 21 million subscribers — about a third of all U.S. cable customers. Most of that network it acquired in 2002, when Comcast, then a mid-sized cable provider based in Philadelphia, bought a national player, AT&T Broadband, a spinoff of AT&T.

With monopoly status in every local jurisdiction — and no regulation of rates — Comcast charges customers whatever it thinks they will pay. Cable rates have gone up three times as fast as inflation for the last five years. Basic cable is today $498 a year, while premium all-frills cable costs as much as $1,139 a year. Want Internet access with your cable line? That’s an additional $515 a year, or $635 if you’re not getting cable. It’s prices like these that account for Comcast’s more than $18 billion in annual revenue in 2003.

That’s good for the Roberts family, which founded Comcast and controls one-third of its voting stock. Not counting stock options, Comcast chief executive officer Brian Roberts (the son of Comcast’s founder) made $8.6 million last year, almost 300 times the $29,500 a year earned by the average Comcast technician, installer or customer service representative.

As outlined in a June 2004 special report by the group American Rights at Work, the jobs themselves are equivalent, but wages in the cable sector are about a third lower than wages in traditional land-line telephone companies, where unions still represent about three-fourths of the workers. Benefits are less generous: 401(k)s instead of traditional defined benefit pensions. And jobs are less secure, with annual turnover twice as high, part-time and temporary work more common, and vacancies less often filled by promotion from within than in the telephone sector.

The discrepancy would seem to make cable companies like Comcast ripe for unionizing.

But never since cable television took off as an industry in the 1980s have unions have represented more than a tiny fraction of employees. After AT&T bought into the cable industry in 1999 with its purchase of TCI and MediaOne, CWA, in bargaining for its AT&T telecom members, made concessions in order to win a promise of management neutrality during union organizing campaigns in the new broadband division. New technology was merging the cable and telephone markets anyway, and the union knew its members would soon suffer from competition with the non-union sectors.

With the neutrality agreement in place, the union made headway, organizing shops in a handful of cities, including Beaverton, Oregon.

Then AT&T announced the sale of its broadband division to Comcast.

Before Comcast could complete the acquisition, it had to get approval from local regulators. Comcast management met with union leaders, and pledged — in return for supportive testimony from union leaders at local cable commissions — to honor existing contracts and fairly bargain first contracts at newly unionized units. Union leaders testified in favor of approval, but say the company failed to keep its promises.

After the acquisition, Comcast found itself with an estimated 4,000 union-represented employees.

Two years later there are half that number — and 57,000 non-union employees.

A Comcast spokesperson contacted for this story (who asked not to be named) said the company’s position on unions is that “employees should have the freedom to choose whether or not to belong to a union.”

That stance appears to be contradicted by a 37-page anti-union management training document that came into CWA hands. In the manual, the company is more candid about its “philosophy on unions:” “Comcast does not feel union representation is in the best interest of its employees, customers or shareholders.”

In the field, union leaders say they’ve observed consistent management strategies at units across the United States.

For example, prior to a vote on unionization, managers are brought in from other areas to ride along with workers; employees are subject to regular mandatory-attendance anti-union meetings; and pro-union workers find themselves disciplined more frequently than anti-union workers.

If the union wins the right to represent a unit in a government-administered vote, Comcast then drags out contract negotiations. It spent 13 months bargaining a first contract in Spokane, Wash.; two-and-a-half years in Pittsburgh; and five years in Chicago at a unit represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Most often, workers give up and vote out the union.

“Unless you’re causing them pain somehow, you’re not going to get a contract,” says Patrick Hunt, who studies Comcast as a research economist at CWA’s national headquarters in Washington, D.C.

In the handful of cases where the company has signed a union contract — Dallas, Oakland, Pleasantville, N.J., and Detroit — Comcast sees to it that non-union workers receive better benefits, so that the futility of unionizing is brought home to pro-union workers.

And unionized units frequently suffer layoffs and find their work transferred to non-union units.

Meanwhile, new workers are brought in, and management encourages employees to petition for a new election to vote out the union. Comcast’s anti-union manual lists 29 of these “successful decertifications,” including one in Beaverton, Oregon.

It’s illegal for management to foment union decertification, but allegations that Comcast did just that are among the hundreds of charges that have been filed against the company with the National Labor Relations Board.

In Beaverton, Comcast vice president Curt Henninger made the company’s intentions crystal clear. At a Dec. 17, 2003 meeting of the Metropolitan Area Communications Commission, which oversees cable franchises in the Tualatin Valley, he told commissioners in videotaped testimony: “I will tell you we are going to wage a war to decertify the CWA.”

Jeanne Carpenter, union organizer with Portland-based CWA Local 7901, said the company brought in supervisors from all over Oregon to ride with unionized workers during the workday and persuade them to vote out the union, which they did March 11, 2004.

The national workers’ rights group Jobs With Justice wanted to convene a panel to publicize American workers’ lack of basic union rights. After asking its member unions to name companies that violate workers’ rights to unionize, Jobs With Justice picked Comcast as one of two worst examples. [Wackenhut was the other.]

The group’s Workers’ Rights Board panelists met June 2 in Washington, D.C., and after hearing testimony, recommended comprehensive labor law reform to establish significant penalties against law-breaking companies and provide for mediation and arbitration to help workers reach their first union contract. The board also recommended that Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) strength-en the ability of local communities to regulate cable monopolies, particularly with regard to prices charged consumers and quality of service.

CWA is planning its national legislative strategy exactly along the lines of those two goals.

As for the first goal, some momentum is building around the Employee Free Choice Act, which would mandate automatic union recognition where a majority of workers sign authorization cards, provide for binding arbitration of first contracts, and stronger penalties for employer violations of labor law, including triple back pay for employees fired for supporting a union drive. The bill has been endorsed by 32 senators and 207 representatives (including all Democratic members of Oregon’s delegation as well as Southwest Washington Representative Brian Baird.)

As for the second goal, there’s also momentum behind rewriting the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the most important law governing telecommunications industries, which was written at the beginning of the Internet explosion.

Cable has a regulatory history that’s unlike other telecom industries. Radio, TV and satellite transmissions are regulated by the FCC. Telephone service has historically been regulated by state public utility commissions. But cable is regulated by local jurisdictions because the cables themselves need to use the public right-of-way. At first, in exchange for allowing companies to string cable, cities and counties were free to legislate whatever conditions they chose, limited only by the fact that private businesses weren’t required to lay cable if there was no profit in it.

Local rules varied widely, but most charged franchise fees, put some limits on rates, and enforced rules on customer service, safety, signal quality and network access, and required that cable companies build facilities for public access and set aside channels for local government proceedings.

Then the Cable Act of 1984 was passed, which limited the ability of local jurisdictions to regulate prices beyond a very limited set of “basic cable” offerings. It also capped franchise fees at 5 percent, and virtually guaranteed franchise renewal.

Prices, in a market based on monopoly, rose dramatically, until the 1992 Cable Act was passed, re-establishing price regulation. The 1996 Telecommunications Act ended that, returning to the “whatever the market will bear” model as of March 1999.

Prices, unsurprisingly, have quickly risen. Once again, there’s pressure to re-regulate prices. But expect cable companies to fight energetically to oppose this.

Complicating matters considerably is the changing nature of technology.

Two decades ago, it was fairly simple: Copper wire delivered telephone service, electromagnetic waves delivered television and radio, and coaxial cables delivered cable television. The Internet, which didn’t exist for most people, was accessed through the telephone using a modem.

Today, telephone landlines deliver not just telephone service but high-speed Internet access, and in some areas, even television service. The electromagnetic spectrum delivers not just television and radio, but wireless telephone service, cable-like television and music channels through satellite dishes, and Internet access through wi-fi connections and cell phones. And cable, which used to provide only cable TV, now provides high-speed Internet access, and this year and next will begin providing telephone service through a new technology called Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP).

Cable has quickly supplanted telephone landlines (DSL) as the number one means to connect to the Internet, so local regulators were very unhappy with a 2002 FCC decision to prohibit local regulation of cable-provided Internet access or phone service.

“They’re the primary gatekeepers of the Internet, with almost no regulation,” says David Olson, cable director for the City of Portland. “And that’s a problem.”

“You can see it in what they charge — $45 a month, when you can get a dial-tone line for $10 or less. Why are cable companies charging so much for Internet access? Because they can. They’re a monopoly.”

When Congress revisits telecommunications law next year, it will look at whether and how cable-provided Internet access and VoIP will be regulated. CWA expects to join forces with local governments and consumer groups to fight for consumer rights and restore the power of local government to regulate in the public interest. In the most successful scenario, the new law would strengthen the ability of local regulators to consider a company’s local wage levels and whether it stood in violation of federal laws.

Of course, Comcast knows its way around Washington, D.C., too, and along with other telecom companies, is working hard to cut government regulations.

Comcast boss Brian Roberts was chairman of the cable industry lobby when the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was written. Now, Roberts (whose personal net worth is estimated at $625 million) is a “ranger” in the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, meaning he’s pledged to raise $200,000 in donations. Comcast executive vice president Stephen Burke is also a ranger, and served on the host committee that brought the Republican National Convention to Philadelphia in 2000.

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has a mixed record on telecommunications issues as a senator, having voted for and against capping cable rates at various times. But Kerry (and Edwards) have endorsed the Employee Free Choice Act.

And in June, Kerry met with a Comcast employee from Pittsburgh and heard about the difficulty in unionizing. Kerry wrote a letter to Comcast’s CEO, urging him to respect workers’ wishes to join CWA and bargain a fair contract.

CWA, having found that the nation’s labor laws hamstring its ability to use workers’ economic leverage, has concluded that a lot will rest on who occupies the Capitol and the White House over the next few years.

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