The Longest Strike in America Needs a Political Savior

Hamilton Nolan February 13, 2020

Following a rally in Brooklyn's Cadman Plaza Park, hundreds of union members march across the Brooklyn Bridge in support of IBEW Local 3 September 18, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

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.”

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Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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