Case Study in Union Busting Comcast Abuses Show Weakness in Labor Law

Thousands of cable TV workers have, historically, battled an entire industry that has sought to avoid unionization. That continues today at Comcast: with 24 million subscribers nationwide, the largest and clearly the most anti-union cable provider.



CWA's own history with Comcast goes back to the 1980s, when the bulk of the company was Tele-Communications Inc. TCI chief John Malone established an anti-union animus throughout, that persisted after TCI became AT&T Broadband in 1999 and then after Broadband's merger with Comcast two years later.



Today, Comcast stands out as a prime example among the hundreds of corporations that systematically use intimidation, coercion and misinformation to discourage workers from choosing union representation, that misuse labor law to delay or prevent them from ever winning a contract and that go to great lengths to eradicate unions and keep workers in thrall.



Broadband Experience

CWA bargained a neutrality and consent election agreement in its contract with AT&T in 1998 to give workers in the company's unorganized subsidiaries a fair opportunity to vote for union representation through an expedited process. Under terms of the agreement, the company was to remain neutral. When 50 percent of the workers signed cards requesting an election, it was to be held in 60 days, with the results certified by the American Arbitration Association. Violations of the agreement would be determined by a "third party neutral" with the authority to order various remedies including recognition based on card check alone. The agreement became effective at Broadband on March 8, 2000 - one year after AT&T acquired what had been TCI.



More than 50 locals around the nation helped Broadband workers organize. CWA trained 150 new local organizers and built workers' organizing committees in 20 states. The results were dramatic: 245 new members in Stone Mountain, Ga.; 90 in Hialeah, Florida; 75 in Arlington and 50 in Dallas, Texas; 90 in Beaverton, Ore.; 370 in Los Angeles, 150 in Fresno and 110 in Sacramento, Calif. Numerous other units won recognition, with by far the largest concentration, about 1,000 workers, in and around Pittsburgh, Pa.



By August 2002, CWA had come to represent 3,500 workers throughout AT&T Broadband. The organizing victories did not come easily. The company did not play by the rules, and CWA was forced to use the arbitration process repeatedly to defend the workers' organizing rights. But at least there was a process that circumvented the usual procedures under the flawed federal labor law. When AT&T sold Broadband to Comcast, however, the platoons of union-busting lawyers were waiting in the wings.



Fire the Organizers

Firing union supporters is a common tactic used by Comcast and its predecessors to thwart union organizing campaigns. It happened in western Pennsylvania: Reggie Frezzell, a technician out of the company's South Hills office was fired for locking his keys in his truck, trying to recover them on his lunch hour and not reporting that he was "working" during that period. Another South Hills technician, Bill Gilchrist, was fired for allegedly stealing garbage bags from a customer's premises. Both men were outspoken union supporters and both - after more than a year of working their cases through a CWA-bargained grievance procedure - were recently reinstated with back pay and compensation for lost benefits.



At Stone Mountain, near Atlanta, Comcast targeted and fired several of the union's strongest supporters. In Hialeah, they fired the lead organizer, Obed Pasis.



Said District 3 CWA Representative Don LaRotonda, "Obed headed home to pick up his tools and a manager spotted him. They said he was operating his vehicle unsafely outside of his work area. We filed NLRB charges for discriminating against a union organizer - the board didn't see any merit. Fortunately, he got a better job at another cable company, was satisfied, and moved on."



In Port Huron, Mich., where CWA had a contract, District 4 Organizing Coordinator Shannon Kirkland said Comcast in December 2001 fired Local 4107 grievance committeeman Tyrone Smith. "Comcast had somebody follow him all day long," Kirkland said.



Smith was suspended by Comcast, allegedly for performing substandard work, then fired for continuing to work for the company while on suspension in violation of safety and health regulations. It took a year and a half to work his case through the grievance procedure. He just got his job back through the arbitration process.



"Every battle is a lengthy one, even scheduling arbitration dates," Kirkland said. "You give them three dates, and they pick the one farthest out. Then they cancel that, and you have to send them another three."



Any worker the company wants to get rid of, said Kirkland, "they write up on really tedious stuff, and if they get any more on them, they terminate them through the grievance procedure."



It's all part of an orchestrated process to induce fear into the bargaining unit at every stage, from the start of organizing, through bargaining and - if the company gets its way - to decertification of the union.



Legal Tricks and Delays

Not all of Comcast's current bargaining units are carry-overs from AT&T Broadband. The company has made a policy of growth through acquisition, and that included purchasing units of Barden Cable. CWA won an election at Comcast in Taylor, Mich., in 1998. Prior to the vote, the union paid for accommodations - two to a room - and breakfast for four workers to attend CWA's national cable meeting at the union's Chicago convention.



"Comcast said we enticed those workers to vote for the union by giving them an 'all expense paid trip' to Chicago," Kirkland said.

Comcast filed charges with the regional NLRB, which said they had no merit. They appealed the charges to the national Labor Board, with the same result. So then they took their case to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court, which finally ruled that the Chicago trip enticed the workers to vote for the union.



The entire process took two years, during which the union had no recognition and workers at nearby nonunion locations got raises.

The board then ordered a second election. By that time, "we had lost our support," said Kirkland. "They had fired a lot of the workers, and we couldn't win it." The election was never held.



"We still keep in contact with these guys, but they're scared to death to organize," Kirkland said. "Comcast has linked together choosing a union and freezing your wages."



Other tactics the company uses to induce fear include moving, or threatening to move, work out of the bargaining unit.



In Detroit, Mich., where Comcast workers will bargain for a new contract next spring, the company has been systematically dismantling the bargaining unit. Of an original 125 workers, only 58 remain. "They moved the customer service jobs out to nonunion facilities in Southfield," Kirkland said. "They made those women reapply for their jobs, and they didn't hire all of them back."



He said the company eliminated four job titles, moved all dispatch jobs to a nonunion facility in Sterling Heights, and that it does not replace bargaining unit technicians when they leave. "Contractors now outnumber union workers here 2-1," Kirkland said. CWA is working with public officials to bring the union jobs back to Detroit.



In Dallas, Texas, CWA has raised concerns with the mayor and chair of the city council about city jobs leaving the area. Local 6150 President Larry Ihfe, in remarks prepared for a council hearing, explained how 60 workers - CWA members - most of whom lived in Dallas or South Dallas counties, had their jobs transferred to a nonunion customer service center in Plano, Texas. "They were told they would have to follow their jobs or be let go," Ihfe said.



Furthermore, they fired a worker for her organizing activity as soon as she was moved to Plano, where she no longer had a union contract and grievance procedure.



"Comcast has told its employees very clearly," Ihfe said, "our company policy is that we do not want you to have a voice, we do not want you to have union representation, and we will break the law if that is what it takes."



Send in Union-Busters

During organizing campaigns, Comcast uses highly paid union-busting law firms to advise management and discourage workers: Seyfarth, Shaw, a West Coast firm with 273 attorneys in Chicago and 582 nationwide; Davis, Wright and Tremaine of Seattle, Wash.; Kreitzman, Mortensen, Simon & Irgang of New York.



"It's like somebody wrote the play book," said John Quinn an attorney for CWA in the District 3 office. "It was the same all over. They'd fight us like hell in organizing, and if we were successful in winning an election, they'd just go through the motions in bargaining, frustrate the employees, undermine the union at every turn and encourage an active decertification campaign."



If a new bargaining unit goes for a year without obtaining a first contract, anti-union workers can petition the NLRB for a decertification election to vote out the union. In some cases, high turnover from attrition, firings, or movement of work to other locations erodes the union majority in the bargaining unit, so that CWA is no longer able to represent the workers. Such was the case at Comcast's Stone Mountain, Ga., facility near Atlanta.



In August 2001, Stone Mountain technicians found literature on their windshields, so-called "fact" sheets urging them to "Do Away with CWA." When they ignored management's misinformation and chose CWA by a vote of 116-105, management sent its team of lawyers to the bargaining table.



Despite having offices in Atlanta, Seyfarth Shaw used Chicago attorneys to bargain at Stone Mountain.



"They refused to meet with us for any amount of time," Quinn said. "They'd fly down for one day and spend a lot of time advancing proposals they knew we could never accept, then they'd fly back to Chicago."



Comcast's lawyers resisted bargaining a grievance procedure and seniority rights and wanted to insist upon merit pay increases only.



"We would go as long as a month between sessions," Quinn said. "All during this time, the managers are just agitating the workers, bad-mouthing the union and harassing the union supporters. They fired all our key people or harassed them until they quit."



Quinn said Stone Mountain had a shortage of safety cones. Supervisors would send techs out with an insufficient number of cones on their trucks, then write them up for not using the required number on the street. They would selectively go behind them and inspect their work. They would have supervisors follow technicians with cameras, try to find minor safety violations, write them up and discipline them. Management even established a "wall of shame" to humiliate workers with violations by posting pictures of them with their trucks.



Bargaining dragged on fruitlessly for 20 months. Quinn said he filed unfair labor practice charges on behalf of several fired workers, but only one made it to arbitration and that one the union lost.



"One problem down here is, the NLRB doesn't want to do anything; they're very apathetic," Quinn said.



CWA lost its majority in the bargaining unit. Because CWA could not win a decertification election, the workers lost their representation.



Fighting Decerts

In northern California, workers at two organized Comcast units - Oakland and the San Francisco Bay Area, which includes Fremont and communities on the Peninsula - fought against several decertification election efforts during the 20 years the former TCI units have been organized. In the Bay area unit, workers lost a decert in 1988 because the vote was tied - "my first understanding that a tie goes to the company," said Karin Hart, a union representative with Local 9415.



There were so many illegal activities during this decertification campaign that the NLRB ordered another election. CWA won that election, mainly because the company acted so unfairly, harshly disciplining people, firing people outright. "Many workers stated they never wanted to be without a contract again," Hart said.

Over the next few years, the local worked hard to build a real sense of membership among Comcast workers. It took many years, but union workers finally, in 2000, gained in bargaining a match for their 401(k) retirement plans. This was a benefit that management - AT&T at that time - provided to nonunion workers but refused to extend to union workers.



The Oakland unit of 70 workers will bargain a new contract in February 2004. The Bay Area contract for 200 workers expires about the same time the following year. In past bargaining, "AT&T Broadband used the same team of union avoidance lawyers that predecessor TCI did," said CWA Representative John Dugan, who said the company will likely again push a decert.



While those Bay area units remain organized, other California locations haven't fared as well. Sacramento, 110 workers; Los Angeles, 370; and Modesto, 45, are three units that went very quickly from successfully organizing to stalled contract talks to ultimate decertification of CWA.



The Sacramento unit was organized in October 2001. About a year later, a decert petition was filed, and by February 2003, the workers' union representation was lost. Comcast found a willing employee to press for the decert, said CWA Representative Libby Sayre. He was rewarded with a promotion into maintenance, a non-represented job.



The same thing happened in Los Angeles, where the main supporter of the decert was made a maintenance supervisor. Comcast allowed workers to distribute anti-union and decert information on company time, Sayre said. When CWA complained about this, the company denied it was happening. Workers were required to attend captive audience meetings, where company executives misrepresented CWA contract language.



The company brought in an outside engineer, who told them about a new communications technician title that Comcast had established at nonunion locations but would not bargain for the union workers. The company also told them about a year-end bonus for nonunion workers they would not receive because they relied upon collective bargaining.



CWA, this past summer, lost decert elections for 18 Comcast technicians in Nedham, Mass., 17 warehouse workers in Portland, Ore., and 45 workers in Elyria, Ohio.



Workers last December faced down an attempted decert in Ocean City, Md., said CWA Representative Richard Verlander. "Comcast flew in people from all over the United States to tell us what the company could do for us if the union wasn't there," one worker said.



To sow discontent, the company is providing health benefits to retiring workers at non-represented locations but will not extend them to union workers.



Pitched Battle in Pittsburgh

CWA District 13 has been attempting to bargain with Comcast for two years and is facing decertification elections for about 1,000 workers in Pittsburgh and surrounding areas. About 700 technicians at Corliss, South Hills, Penn Hills, Washington, Coraopolis and a customer service unit in Washington are scheduled to vote on decertification Nov. 12, and 280 workers at the Corliss call center, on Nov. 17.



Comcast has insisted it must bargain separate agreements for each of the units.



"We've had 38 tentative agreements," said Marge Krueger, administrative assistant to District 13 Vice President Vince Maisano. "They've switched lawyers seven times, each time wanting to start over again."



AFL-CIO Sec.-Treas. Richard Trumka, about 30 officers of national unions, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and other members of Congress have written to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, urging the company to bargain fairly.



"Comcast has repeatedly violated labor law," Krueger said. "We filed 14 ULPs and the NLRB agreed with us. They forced Comcast to correct the violations and agree to stop breaking the law."

Local 13000's Frizzell and Gilchrist, both stewards from South Hills and members of the bargaining committee, have been working against the decert along with other District 13 activists, and CWA has been running radio ads in support.



Krueger said the company most recently brought in a team of human resources specialists, many of them attractive young women, to persuade workers to vote against the union. "The 'cheerleaders' are out riding with the guys to influence their vote," Krueger said. "Our people have been taking Comcast on at captive audience meetings, through home visits and distributing literature. We've been doing everything we can to fight back.



"Every minute of my 14-hour day is spent trying to get votes for this bargaining unit."