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On Strike Now for Three Years, Spectrum Workers Are Demanding Public Ownership

As Spectrum workers continue a third year of striking, they are also demanding publicly owned telecommunications.

The crowd listens as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks during a rally of hundreds of union members in support of IBEW Local 3 (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) at Cadman Plaza Park, September 18, 2017, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

Cable technician Troy Walcott, along with 1,800 of his fellow members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 3, has been striking for three years, and there’s still no end in sight.

Local 3 first walked off the job in March 2017 when their employer, Spectrum/Charter Communications — the largest provider of cable TV, internet and telephone service in New York State and the second-largest cable provider in the country — attempted to replace its union health insurance and pension plans with the firm’s prevailing benefits.

The strike has now earned the unpleasant distinction as one of the state’s longest strikes. Yet with the recent wave of labor strikes gripping the country and capturing the imagination of progressives like Bernie Sanders, little attention has been given to the plight of Local 3. “I’m figuring that none of the politicians at this point want to stick their neck out for something that might not be a winner, because honestly, from the hole we are in and the position we are at, it’s hard to see if we are going to come out at the top,” Walcott told Truthout. “A lot of people who claim to be on the side of unions and working people are scared to even mention we are still on strike.”

Prior to walking off the job, Walcott had 20 years under his belt as a cable technician and served as a shop steward at his local. Now, like many of his union comrades, Walcott finds himself driving 10-hour shifts for Uber as a means of survival. “People are still at the point that they are losing their houses on a daily basis. Their family life is horrible. Their medical is horrible,” he said. “Each day the strike goes on, they are losing things. They can cross the line at any time but they don’t because it’s the right thing to do.”

With the strike dragging on into its third year, Charter, which operates under the brand name Spectrum in New York, has refused to play fair with its workforce. Instead of negotiating with Local 3, Charter has hired an army of replacement workers from out of state as well as moving to decertify the IBEW Local 3. In a nutshell, decertification is the process by which workers vote to replace or remove their current union. Charter plans on using the replacement workers to vote for decertification.

Since taking office, the Trump administration has used the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) as a weapon against workers’ rights. The NLRB is run as an independent agency, but the president has the power to appoint all the members of the five-member board. Trump has since appointed board members who have made rulings intended to weaken long-established worker protections under the National Labor Relations Act.

Seizing this opportunity, Charter has been lobbying workers to vote to decertify the union with the NLRB. In a leaked email first obtained by In These Times, Charter Communications Regional Vice President of New York City Operations John Quigley urged workers to drop the union: “In my opinion, Local 3 has not earned the right to represent you. Over the past several years they have mislead (sic.) their members, led them out on a strike without a clear plan, mishandled almost every aspect of the strike, made it very clear what they think of employees who are working with us today, and continue to make empty threats about harming our business.”

However, Charter’s efforts to oust the union may be its undoing. Local 3 provided the NLRB with evidence alleging that Charter interfered with the decertification by threatening workers if they voted in favor of the union. If the NLRB sides with the union, it would kill Charter’s decertifying campaign. Still, the NLRB has yet to announce when it will make its decision.

During a rally on the steps of City Hall this past December to mark the 1,000th day of the strike, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer declared her support for the workers and vowed to fight to revoke Charter’s New York City’s franchise if it continues its bid to oust the union. “I represent 1.6 million Manhattanites and everyone goddamn one of them supports Local 3. The workers are the backbone of this city. They keep New Yorkers connected. They make a growing economy grow,” she said to a roar of applause. “Charter has a franchise with the city. They signed a contract with us that recognize their workers’ right to collectively bargain. So why is this company refusing to give their workers a fair contract? Why is it that this multibillion-dollar corporation that is gobbling up media companies not living up to their obligations? That franchise agreement is up in one year, so guess what, I’m all over it.”

Charter representatives declined to comment on its campaign to decertify the union, but insisted that the company was the reasonable party in the feud. “Spectrum’s New York City employees, which include[s] hundreds of former strikers who returned to work, are receiving higher wages, excellent benefits and a better working environment,” John Bonomo, a Spectrum spokesman, told Truthout. “These highly skilled technicians have been delivering professional, reliable and superior service to our more than 1 million New York City customers. We are in compliance with our New York City franchise.”

Dissatisfied with the pace of the strike and disenchanted by the political process, Walcott is leading a rank-and-file revolt to win back workers’ jobs. “You can’t wait and sit back for someone to do something for you; you have to do everything yourself, because at the end of the day, if this strike doesn’t pan out, we lose everything,” he said. “I always tell people the union is not a couple of reps in the office, it’s us, the men and women working. We have to be able to do what we have to do to get our jobs back.”

Walcott believes that the only permanent solution that will guarantee job security as well as provide cheap and reliable broadband service in the city is for public ownership. According to Walcott, for the plan to take shape, the union will have to organize enough city residents who are willing to purchase a share of the company. With a goal of 1 million people, he believes that would create sufficient capital to purchase the company and form a cooperative. As for the ownership structure, Walcott says that it could only be worked out after the IBEW Local 3 rank and file are able to build a coalition to fight for it. “We could have all the ideas in the world, but if we don’t have enough people to actually come together, then nothing will happen,” he said.

Currently, Walcott and other union officials are in discussions to join the New York Democratic Socialists of America’s (DSA) Public Power campaign. The campaign is fighting to make utilities, such as electricity, publicly owned and controlled. Ultimately, Walcott believes legislation is the only solution but doubts the sincerity of many elected officials. In the meantime, Walcott has plans to directly appeal to the public’s hatred for the cable giant by launching a public access show that brings awareness to the strike as well as educates the public about publicly owned cable.

“The goal now is to hold as many outreach programs as we can reaching out to other unions, workers and community organizations to become part of the show and involved in the process. It is now about the entire workforce, not just our cause.”

Fortunately, Walcott doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. The movement of public ownership of broadband has gained momentum nationwide. Currently, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, there are more than 800 communities with some form of municipally owned or publicly owned broadband networks. Chattanooga, Tennessee, was the first city in the U.S. to establish a public-owned fiber-optic network in 2010, and it has been consistently ranked as having the fastest internet in the country, resulting in helping to revive its downtown economy. Enticed by the fast and efficient broadband service, companies such as Volkswagen relocated to the city. A study published by the University of Tennessee noted that the city’s broadband network directly led to the creation of between 2,800 and 5,200 new jobs as well as earning the city a new $1 billion economic development.

Municipalities across the country, especially in rural and underserved localities, are increasingly turning to public ownership models as a way to break away from depending on the good graces of private companies that neglect to invest in their communities like Comcast and Charter. The small island town of Anacortes, Washington, located 90 minutes north of Seattle with a population just shy of 15,000, voted in September to roll out its own municipal broadband service. Anacortes is just the latest example of over 750 communities to have built their own publicly run broadband networks. Proponents argue that publicly-owned telecommunications provide municipalities and their residents an affordable alternative. According to a 2018 study by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, community-owned broadband networks provide customers with significantly lower rates than the private sector. As municipal broadband’s popularity surged, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders proposed $150 billion worth of grants and aid to help local governments build their own broadband internet infrastructure. Fearing a growing trend, the big telecommunication companies like Charter spent $92 million on lobbying in 2018 alone to protect their business interests at the national and state levels. Their efforts have successfully lobbied 25 states to pass laws that either hinder or ban municipally owned broadband networks.

Inspired by the success of cities such as Chattanooga, Walcott is convinced that the union’s rank and file can build a movement to fight for public ownership. “If 1 million people own the system, you have a lot more involvement, because some would actually know someone owns the cable company. One million people will own it; the other 7 million will benefit from better service and cheaper prices. That being said, when the people own it, you have some of the money coming back into the city to help build more infrastructure.”

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