The longest ongoing strike in America today is happening in the media capital of the world. It involves the people who install and repair the cables that bring the news to many of the most influential people in America. But after three long years, the Spectrum workers of New York City are beginning to feel as though everyone has forgotten about them. For those who soldier on, the fight has become much bigger than a contract dispute. It is a fight that can only be won with a wholesale reimagining of public control over corporate power.
From the very beginning, the strike has been a battle of attrition far more than it has been a negotiation. By the time Charter acquired Time Warner Cable in 2016 and rebranded it as Spectrum, the company’s 1,800 unionized cable technicians, members of IBEW Local 3, could sense trouble. “Leading up to that time, we saw changes happening in the company, where they went away from customer service,” says Troy Walcott, a 20-year Spectrum veteran and a union shop steward. “They were doing things for increasing stock prices, as opposed to customer service.”
The new owners struck a hostile pose towards the union. They showed little interest in meaningful contract negotiations. Workers say that Charter also began imposing stricter disciplinary rules, and making changes in the metrics used to evaluate employees and in internal training programs, making it harder to advance within the company. They also seemed to show less interest in long-established union-negotiated procedures. “Their attitude was: Do what I say, and you can grieve it later,” says Chris Fasulo, a Spectrum technician since 2010. “If we said, ‘I can’t drive this truck, it has a broken windshield,’ they’d say, ‘Do it, and you can file a grievance.’”
In March of 2017, at odds over retirement and health benefits, the union went on strike. The company proceeded to hire outside contractors to do the work of the technicians, and the two sides remained doggedly opposed. After a year, the company launched a bid to decertify the union, using a former supervisor who the union says dropped into the role of a technician in order to file a challenge, trying to convince workers to give up on union representation entirely. That decertification attempt, marked by claims of coercion and unfair labor practices, remains mired in the bureaucratic morass of the National Labor Relations Board. Meanwhile, the strike drags on.
It is hard to be on strike for a week. It is hard to be on strike for a month. To be on strike for three years is superhuman. As the calendar has turned, Spectrum workers have exhausted strike funds, exhausted their savings, and become desperate. Some have crossed the picket lines and returned to their old jobs. Estimates among workers vary, but they say that close to half of the original strikers are still out. Those who hold the line do whatever they can to survive. Troy Walcott, who does not have any kids to support, drives Uber. But as a shop steward, he hears all of the stories of suffering. “You see people losing their homes, losing their cars, losing their jobs, losing their relationships with their wives, breaking down constantly… the longer it stretches out, the harder it gets for people,” he says. “When I get those calls, it affects me like it was me.”
This is the reality for workers striking against a company that wants to break the union. The choices are grim: Cross the picket line, pursue part time hustles in hopes of a resolution, or get a new full time job — starting over from square one, even if you’ve had decades of experience as a Spectrum employee. Every option is painful. Chris Fasulo loved his job. “When you go out and get some old lady’s phone working, it puts a smile on your face,” he says. This month, for the first time, he came close to being unable to pay his mortgage. The memory of the good times helps him carry on. “Sometimes you feel a little lonely, but you’ve got to have faith. I put everything into this strike.”
It is clear that the Spectrum strike will not be won with a little more time, or a few more picket signs. Shaking the company’s intransigence will require political power. The workers are putting their hopes in two plans: First, they hope to torpedo the franchise agreement that New York City grants Spectrum to operate in the city, which is up for renewal this summer. While there is ample political reason to kick Spectrum out of a city that famously bills itself as “a union town,” such a move would certainly spark a legal fight, since franchise agreements are supposed to be renewed on the basis of the company’s ability to provide adequate service, rather than serving as political referendums on cable companies, all of which are more or less despised by the public. Laura Feyer, a deputy press secretary in the New York Mayor’s office, says that “this Administration strongly supports the striking workers,” but adds, “Like all cable franchise agreements, Spectrum’s is governed by federal law, which has strict guidelines regarding when a franchise can and cannot be renewed.” (A Spectrum spokesman noted that “hundreds of former strikers” have returned to work, and said “we are in compliance with our New York City franchise.”)
It is not like the company has a sterling record and high popularity among its cable customers. In fact, the New York attorney general’s office in 2018 reached a $174 million settlement with Charter for misleading customers about internet speeds. Those charges, though, could not be used as a basis for not renewing Spectrum’s cable franchise. It will be difficult to convince the City of New York to kick out Spectrum when there are few other attractive options for providing cable service to the city’s millions of customers.
And that is where the union’s other idea comes in. The striking Spectrum workers are proposing a “public option” for cable service — a publicly owned internet service provider in New York City, run by the Spectrum workers but owned by a million New Yorkers, who would collectively provide the capital for the new venture. The Spectrum workers envision rebuilding the city’s infrastructure and running the company as a co-op, under the auspices of Bill de Blasio’s much-touted “Internet Master Plan,” which aims to make broadband service universal. It is an idea with undeniable appeal, considering how universally despised cable companies are by consumers. But the same could be said about socialized medicine. It’s making it a reality that’s the hard part. The mayor’s office calls it, rather noncommittally, “an interesting idea that the Administration will look into.” Until there is a realistic line on billions of dollars of investment capital, it is hard to see the public option as a near-term solution to the daily pain of the Spectrum strike.
A group of several hundred cable workers, gutted by three long years of financial and personal sacrifice, cannot have a fair fight with a roughly $111 billion telecom company. The Spectrum strikers are a case study in how stark the differences are between traditional local union power and the power of a modern mega-corporation. In December, they held a rally on the steps of New York City Hall, marking 1,000 days on strike. They were joined by a host of local and state politicians vowing to support them. But talk is cheap. Unless the Charter/Spectrum franchise in New York is actually rejected, or a serious financing campaign is mounted for the costly “public option,” the outlook for those who have stuck with the strike is bleak. It is a gut check for the power of the modern labor movement. How much political and economic pressure can working people really bring to bear?
“What do you do when the corporation says F you?” asks Troy Walcott. “They’re tearing us down little by little. If we don’t start to revamp and change the way we’re fighting back against them, we’re gonna lose.”