In a very rare move last Thursday, a group of 120 nonunion Bronx-based cable technicians walked off the job in a wildcat strike. The workers, Corbell Installations employees who work as subcontractors for Cablevision, were demanding that the company not impose a 30 percent wage cut. The workers are also demanding that they be recognized by their employers as members of the Communication Workers of America (CWA).
Last December, a majority of workers voted against joining the electrical workers union (IBEW) in an election that the IBEW is challenging with the National Labor Relations Board. The workers were inspired to join the IBEW as a result of a unionization campaign by 282 Brooklyn-based Cablevision workers, who successfully voted to join CWA in late January in a heavily publicized campaign as I recently reported on for In These Times.
“We’ll stay out until they recognize we are somebody, that we as a people have rights,” employee Omar Hutchinson told Crain’s New York. “That’s the whole idea. I might lose my job, but that’s the whole idea.”
Corbell immediately filed an unfair labor practice charge against CWA, claiming it “instigated and organized an illegal strike and engaged in illegal picketing.” However, CWA District 1 Organizing Director Tim Dubnau said in an interview that he was equally as shocked as the company was that workers choose to go out on strike.
“I would love to take credit for it, but this is 100 percent run by them” says Dubnau. “They had called me the day before saying they wanted a union and I said let’s meet sometime next week. The next thing I heard from them they called me and said they were on strike.”
Dubnau says that after workers called him to tell them they were on strike, he suggested that they should form a bargaining committee to meet with the employers. The workers who were picketing outside of the gates of company met and elected four people to serve as their representative with the company. These worker representatives met with management, who agreed to withdraw their call for a 30 percent wage cut. However, the company would not recognize CWA as a union representing their employees.
Under the National Labor Relations Act, union certification elections can only be held at workplaces once every year.
“We couldn’t even recognize CWA if we wanted to,” Corbell lawyer David Weissman told Crain’s New York. “What happened today is an outgrowth of what’s happening at Cablevision.”
Dubnau disputes Corbell’s change saying that under labor law an employer can voluntarily recognize a union at will. Dubnau agrees with the company’s claim that Corbell workers in the Bronx who install cable for Cablevision were inspired to join CWA as a result of CWA’s successful organizing drive for 282 Cablevision workers in Brooklyn.
“This strike that happened in the Bronx — I have never seen anything like that in the 20 years I have been in the union. I think people have had enough,” says Dubnau. “They saw what happened in Brooklyn with the Cablevision election, and as result of the shift of conscience caused by Occupy Wall Street toward inequality, it made them want more. I think these workers just said “We are done. We have had enough.”
For now, the Corbell subcontractor workers have gone back to work. But workers are saying that despite the company’s offer to withdraw their wage cut demand, they are still going to continue to fight to be members of a union. They scheduled a meeting for Friday night with CWA organizers to discuss next steps.
According to Dubnau, CWA is looking to build on its Cablevision victory in Brooklyn to get a foothold in the cable industry, which is only 2 – 4 percent unionized in contrast to the telecommunications industry, which is nearly 90 percent unionized.
“Everyone in Cablevision has their ears pricked up to what is happening because no one is happy with this company,” Dubnau says.