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Cablevision in Thirds

By Tom Smucker

At the moment, the two year old battle for a union contract by Cablevision workers in Brooklyn has reached a behind closed doors moment. But here’s the story so far, in thirds.

First third. Back in August 2011, (one month before Occupy Wall Street took off) unionized Verizon employees went on a highly public and publicly supported two week strike in the northeast. Non-unionized Cablevision workers crossed paths with the picket lines in Brooklyn and the Local there set up an organizing committee. An election was held, the Communications Workers of America was voted in, word spread, and an organizing committee was formed by the Cablevision counterparts in the Bronx.

Now the standard union busting playbook began. Delays in negotiating a contract and then negotiations that went nowhere. Running out the clock until a year was up and discouraged workers could legally vote to decertify. Raises for all Cablevision workers in New York except for the unionized Brooklyn crew. Cablevision President James Dolan, (who also owns Madison Square Garden, the Knicks and the Rangers) personally addressing and threatening the Bronx crew who would eventually vote down the union.

This winter, when the company suggested that the Brooklyn union negotiating committee had lost the trust of the members, a delegation of union members formed to take advantage of the company’s official “open door policy” and dropped by at the start of the work day to assure management that the union contract negotiators still had the members’ support. At which time the company “permanently replaced” the 22 employees with scabs. They lost their jobs, they were fired, but the technical lingo here is used when companies “replace” workers who are on strike. Which they were not.

Dolan had over-reached. There was no strike, the Cablevision workers, largely African American and Hispanic, had a network of support in Brooklyn, the CWA had resources in politics and the media, and New York City was and is approaching the election of a new mayor. Every Democratic candidate came to Brooklyn to denounce Cablevision. A city council committee held a well attended hearing. There was even a Democratic congressional fact finding visit to Brooklyn. And so, all 22 workers got their jobs back. But no back pay. And no contract. And no union for the rest of Cablevision. So maybe Dolan didn’t over-reach. To be continued.

Because here’s the second third of the story. If Congress had passed the Employee Free Choice Act, meaning, if there was any kind of law that forced employers to bargain real contracts after union recognition; and if the NLRB was actually staffed and funded, none of this suffering would have happened. If Cablevision employees in Brooklyn decided to have a union, they would have a union and a contract. As it stands now, only 50% of workplaces nationwide that vote to unionize ever even reach that first union contract. So how many working people, stymied by a roomful of obfuscating high priced lawyers, must conclude, in the end, that there is really no point anymore in even trying to have a voice and unionize?

And then turn a sorrowful, overtaxed eye towards their unionized public employee neighbor, still enjoying health care benefits and a pension.

But step back and there’s a third piece to this story. Basically, the Cablevision and Verizon folks are in the same line of work: bringing copper wire, or coaxial cable or fiber optic to your home or business to carry information: phone calls, the internet, and TV. Once upon a time, in the old Bell System days, this was done by a regulated and eventually unionized monopoly. There was just no affordable way to string rival networks of copper wire throughout the country that would ensure reliable phone service for all. Hence the monopoly, and so the regulation. And a nationwide union with some clout.

The break-up of the Bell System gave us the miracles of the iPhone and HBO, and now, if you look around, the neo-monopolies of the few big guys who divide up the pie. And, in this era of light (or no) touch regulation, vertical integration that allows the same monolith that delivers triple play phone, internet, and TV to your home while also owning the content it is bundling for you as it selects the bundles and decides what to bill you.

Dolan is one of the smaller monoliths in this game, but he does own a cable company and two of the sports teams (the Knicks and Rangers) that New York fans pay to watch as his subscribers. The CWA poked Dolan with the stick of threatening his tax abatement for Madison Square Garden to get him behind those earlier mentioned closed doors. It worked because the union has cultivated political allies over the years, and I believe, because the public is getting annoyed at the behavior of the Cablevision-TimeWarner-Comcast-Verizon-AT&T-Apple brave new world deregulated bell system of the internet era.

Now comes law professor and gadfly Susan Crawford with a slew of welcome op-eds and a timely book, Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, that contextualizes the irritation of digital consumers with a historical overview to make a plea for public deployment of full strength high speed fiber optic communications for all. As happened when we wired the country for electricity during the New Deal, or connected Eisenhower America with the interstate. Pundits are already wondering if Crawford is “the next Elizabeth Warren.” You don’t know how big a zeitgeist wave is heading towards the shore until somebody manages to surf it, and I believe that Crawford is riding a big one. But is it big enough to wash across our rocky coast of deregulated free market ideology?

And here’s the deeper question raised by a few hundred brave and creative Cablevision union members in Brooklyn. Are the needs, rights, and humanity of the people installing our digital network going to be considered while we fret, as we should, about losing the upload/download contest to South Korea, China and Japan? And if we find the national will to build a high speed internet network for all can we also rebuild the legal and political infrastructure that once allowed citizens to exercise some democracy at work?

From August, 2013

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