It is possibly one of the longest worker strikes of its size in modern labor history, and it’s happening in the era of Trump.
For more than six months, 1,800 workers in New York and New Jersey have been on strike against Charter Communications, a phone, internet, and cable company that services 2.5 million subscribers in the region under the name Spectrum. Their endurance has already shown that labor can still mount an aggressive job action and dig its heels in for a protracted fight against corporate greed.
But can they win?
The odds stacked against these workers – members of Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) – are daunting.
On March 28, Spectrum workers set up picket lines three days ahead of the expiration of their previous contract. The strike has endured for months in an effort to stop the company from destroying the workers’ retirement and health benefits. The striking workers are also fighting back against unfair discipline, threats to job security, and poor equipment.
“They’ve been disciplining the workers over repeat service calls to customers, when the problem is their faulty equipment and unrealistic promises to customers,” Derek Jordan, business agent with Local 3, told the New York Daily News when the strike began.
Pensions and healthcare loom large in the Spectrum battle. Following the standard corporate playbook of buying off workers to undercut long-term benefits, the company offered larger pay increases to workers.
But Spectrum workers didn’t buy it. They are drawing a line in the sand against corporate America’s ceaseless march to push workers’ retirement security to 401(k) plans. The workers are also resisting the company’s attempt to move them into a substandard health plan. In addition to defending their defined-benefit pension plan, IBEW workers are concerned about demotions without just cause and blocked promotions.
The strike has successfully put a spotlight on Charter/Spectrum’s greed, garnering widespread community support and solidarity from other union workers. For many, the contrast between the success of the company and how it treats its workers is an all too familiar story. CEO Tom Rutledge, who met with President Trump at the White House earlier this year, was the highest paid CEO in the nation in 2016.
Meanwhile, the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications has initiated an audit into the company’s hiring of out-of-town scabs which may be in violation of its franchise agreement mandating the use of local vendors. The city has seen an uptick in service complaints since contractors have taken over the work of strikers.
Though the company may not be a well-known brand, its workers are squaring off with a formidable foe. Charter Communications is, in fact, the second-largest cable operator in the country following Comcast, servicing more than 26 million customers nationwide.
Charter emerged from bankruptcy in 2009 to become the fastest-growing cable provider in the U.S. The company went on a buying spree in 2016, raking up more than $60 billion in debt as it acquired Time Warner Cable and Bright House networks.
Spectrum workers were formerly employed by Time Warner Cable, with whom their union enjoyed more amicable relations. All that changed when Charter Communications purchased the company.
Out of its national workforce of 90,000 employees, Charter has about 2,500 workers represented by a union. For the company, the strike presents an opportunity to break Local 3 and move Charter closer to being a fully non-union cable giant. For Spectrum’s part, the company appears to have prepared for a long-term strike, believing it can wear out the union.
And while workers have shown remarkable resilience on the picket line, the strike has taken a toll on their families. For the first eight weeks, every worker on strike received $150 per week in strike pay from the union until they were eligible for unemployment insurance. Since then, Spectrum strikers have reached out to other unions and the community for support, including contributions to the Spectrum Striking Families Hardship Fund.
Still, many of the union families on strike are facing evictions and foreclosures.
A major rally on September 18 certainly served to boost morale among the workers. Thousands of union members and supporters took part in the mass demonstration in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Other unions joined IBEW strikers in a march across the Brooklyn Bridge while #SpectrumStrike was a top trending hashtag in New York City.
Joining workers at the demonstration were Mayor de Blasio, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.
“Working people want a fair return on their work. They want good wages and a decent retirement. They want to provide for their families and enjoy the good things in their lives. They want CEO Tom Rutledge to get to the bargaining table and negotiate a fair deal today,” Trumka said.
Against the backdrop of union-busting legislation and major upcoming Supreme Court cases that threaten to cripple union power, the Spectrum strike is a bold stand at a time of extraordinary peril for workers. In late September, the Supreme Court announced it will hear the case of Janus v. AFSCME. With Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s newest addition to the bench, the now majority conservative court is all but certain to outlaw mandatory union fees for public sector unions.
But whether Spectrum workers can ultimately defeat the company’s attack on their benefits and their union remains to be seen. Their unrelenting struggle to do so while corporate leaders – emboldened by the Trump administration’s hostility to labor – are on the offensive like never before is a daring one.
And it’s one that deserves unrelenting working-class support.