Local 3 holds a protest in Queens.
BY JAMES FARRELL
As IBEW Local 3 Union cable technicians continue their strike against Spectrum Cable and its parent company, Charter Communications, workers are facing economic pressure and uncertain futures.
At least that’s what some Local 3 workers said during an interview with the PRESS of Southeast Queens last week when three Spectrum employees—technicians Tracey Harris and Steve Campisi and shop steward Troy Walcott—as well as Local 3 Business Representative Derek Jordan discussed a variety of topics, from the reasons for their monthslong strike to accusations of cable cutting against Local 3 workers.
The strike against Charter, which purchased Time Warner Cable in 2015 and rebranded it as Spectrum, began on March 28 after union workers alleged that they had worked without a contract for three years and were facing potential healthcare and pension cuts.
As the strike has raged on, Campisi considers himself one of “the lucky ones,” since his wife works and has been the breadwinner.
“Without [my wife] I’d be drowning,” he said. “But it’s definitely taken a toll. We’ve got to scrimp and save. There are no more luxuries. Everything’s just keep the lights on and keep the roof over our heads.”
But for the workers, those sacrifices were necessary to combat what they saw as an unfair attempt to penalize technicians for problems beyond their control. To bolster their case, they referenced a lawsuit by state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman that alleges that Charter Communications promised faster internet speeds that it knew were impossible to provide.
As the workers explained, those high speeds could only be attained with “the perfect set-up” of devices and could be affected by the structure of the house or any number of external variables. But Charter never made that point clear to customers. And when customers didn’t notice an improvement, they would repeatedly call the technicians to complain.
“We would get repeat calls for things that we knew, physically, it was nothing we could do to fix,” Harris explained.
“That’s part of what we were being reprimanded for, repeated calls and being penalized for it because, now, you would get a write-up.”
Those repeat calls had a detrimental effect on the cable workers’ ability to advance, the workers said. In order to move up the ladder, cable workers must complete online courses known as SCTE courses. However, Jordan said, eligibility for those courses is based on a worker’s record, which takes into account the number of repeat calls he or she received. So, the increased disciplinary action against workers prevented their ability to advance and increase their pay scale.
According to Walcott, technicians would meet with management after facing penalties for repeat calls and ask how they could improve.
“They wouldn’t have an answer,” Walcott said.
It was a problem with which Harris was familiar.
“I went for an interview to become a journeyman and I was told that I couldn’t do it because of the repeats,” she said.
“I had to wait six months to re-apply for journeyman, but at the same time I’m still being penalized for repeats that they cannot show me where the repeats are coming from.”
The workers believe that stalling progression was all part of Charter’s plan.
“It minimizes your pay,” Walcott said.
In a statement to the PRESS of Southeast Queens, Charter spokesman John Bonomo said that there is “no basis in fact” for the accounts of the Spectrum strikers. They also responded to the accusations put forward in Schneiderman’s lawsuit.
“We are disappointed that the New York attorney general chose to file this lawsuit regarding Time Warner Cable’s broadband speed advertisements that occurred prior to Charter’s merger,” the statement read. “Charter was among the highest-rated broadband providers in the 2016 FCC Broadband Report. Charter has already made substantial investments in the interest of upgrading the Time Warner Cable systems and delivering the best possible experience to customers.”
The union is also arguing that it has been working for Charter without a contract since 2013—a point that Charter disputes. The disagreement stems from negotiations that took place in 2013, in which the union ratified an agreement among the members. However, the union argues that following disagreement over rider clauses attached to the contract, the contract itself became invalid. The union points to a 2015 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board that claimed there had been “no meeting of the minds” between management and the union. The union said that the ruling equates to no contract.
“We’ve been trying to force the company to get back to bargaining,” Jordan said. “They would meet to negotiate with us—they would call it ‘meetings.’ We said, ‘No, we’re here to negotiate.’ So, they would sit there, spin our wheels and say, ‘Well, we believe we have a contract.’”
And while the strike was initially called after talk of cuts to healthcare benefits and pension plans, Jordan said that the strike is bigger than those issues and extends to Charter’s treatment of employees.
Bonomo maintained that a contract has been in place, citing the 2013 ratification by the union. He alleged that the contract expired this past month and that the company abided by all the elements of the contract over the past three years.
“Charter is offering Local 3 a generous compensation 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,” he said.
As the strike rages on, Charter has hired out-of-state contractors to fill the void of the striking workers. Charter denied that this was true. But union workers said that out-of-state contractors are a problem since they lower the service for customers.
“For out-of-state contractors to come in, to actually know our system and how it works, to know the areas to do it effectively—that takes time to learn,” Walcott said. “They’re willing to sacrifice customer satisfaction in order to increase profit.”
Bonomo also denied this claim, explaining that there are many city employees who are familiar with the systems and that the strike has had little impact on customers.
Adding to an already toxic environment was a recent internet outage at Spectrum that cut service for 60,000 customers in Queens. The outage, police said, was the result of vandalism, and late last week, Wantagh’s Michael Tolve, a striking Spectrum employee, was arrested for allegedly cutting cables and intentionally causing $67,000 worth of damage. Those charges have since been dropped “pending further investigation.”
“We don’t condone it, first of all,” Jordan said. “We don’t know anything about it other than what the media’s been putting out.”
But the workers are also skeptical that one of their own would stoop so low.
“Why would we sabotage something that we work hard to fix?” Harris said.