New York, N.Y.—“Basically, they’re trying to bust the union,” striking Spectrum field technician Juan Berroa told LaborPress
during Monday’s Spectrum strike rally at 42nd & Broadway. “They don’t want to negotiate.” If the cable-TV company could get rid of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, he added, it could lay off veteran workers and hire new ones for less—like Cablevision, its nonunion competitor, where “they don’t let you work for more than a year, so you don’t get benefits.”
“Spectrum is telling us we’re overpaid and lazy,” added Richard Shedman, shop steward at the Northern Manhattan garage where Berroa is based. The two were standing near the front of the more than 2,000 strikers and supporters filling a block-and-a-half of Broadway, south of 42nd Street this week. Shedman knows exactly how long they’ve been on strike for—217 days—but said that if they lose, the company would like to reduce pay to $17-$20 an hour, or 45 cents for each of the 37 years he’s worked there.
Strikebreaking now isn’t as violent as it was at Homestead in 1892 or the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, Local 3 business manager
Chris Erikson told the crowd — but “the brutality of starving the employees into submission continues today with Charter Spectrum.” Charter Spectrum CEO Tom Rutledge, he went on, “is as much a robber baron” as any of the labor-crushing plutocrats of the 19th-century Gilded Age. Spectrum’s resistance to negotiating a fair contract, he said, is part of a national trend that includes increased use of nonunion labor—“20 dollars an hour, no benefits”—in major New York City construction projects, the attacks on public-sector workers’ collective-bargaining rights and pensions, and “the constellation of Trump appointments” to federal labor posts.
The other speakers—union leaders, Public Advocate Letitia James, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, and, just before the rally ended, Mayor Bill de Blasio—echoed that theme. “This is no longer a contract dispute,” James said. “It’s a fight for the rights of the entire working class.”
Local 3 members were the biggest contingent in the crowd, but there were groups from other building-trades unions, the Hotel Trades Council, 32BJ SEIU, Teamsters Local 237, and more. “They need our support today,” said Barbara, a Hotel Trades Council member who did not want to give her last name. “You never know, maybe we’ll need their support tomorrow.”
“This is a fight for labor,” said Ray Macco, assistant business manager for International Union of Operating Engineers Local 94. “It’s a fight against corporate greed.”
The 1,800 strikers had been working without a contract since 2013, three years before Charter Communications completed its purchase of Time Warner Cable for $56.7 billion, renaming it Spectrum. Rutledge’s pay increased sixfold after the takeover, from $16.4 million in 2015 to $98.5 million last year.
“If they can take down a union as powerful as this, we’re all sitting ducks,” Peter D. Meringolo, head of the New York State Public
Employee Conference, told the crowd. A New York City corrections officer for 36 years, he said he had a “beautiful prison cell” for Rutledge, setting off a chant of “Lock him up!”
Spectrum contends that it offered the workers a 22% raise—but that would come with a decapitating reduction in benefits. “They want us to take a pay cut,” says Queens field technician David Jacoby. The company wants to stop contributing to the workers’ pension plan and replace it with a 401(k), and “you know that’s not stable,” said Donna Doherty, a Manhattan foreman with 38 years on the job. “You don’t work 38 years to get 88% of your pension,” she added. “They’re taking away the middle class.”
The company also wants to switch workers to a health-insurance plan where they’d have to pay 20% of costs after a $3,000 deductible, she said. In contrast, Erikson told the crowd, when his son had a kidney transplant, the union’s health plan covered all but $200 out of the $96,000 bill.
Shedman believes Spectrum’s strategy is to drag the strike out until “misery” forces the workers to crumble. “People are really
struggling,” he said. Without a solid, steady income, some are having their cars repossessed or facing foreclosure, and one worker spent three months in a homeless shelter. Unemployment checks for New Jersey residents have already run out, as has the union’s strike pay, he said, so people are “scrounging around” for work. His picket line in upper Manhattan has dwindled to 15 regulars out of 325 members, because, “they have to take care of their families.”
Nevertheless, Shedman said, “some of us are still dug in and are fighting back.”
“It has not been easy,” said field technician Dee Cabrera. “What eases things is the solidarity—depending on our brothers and sisters.”
In New York, Erikson told the crowd, the strikers’ unemployment benefits will run out just before Thanksgiving, and their 39 weeks of medical benefits will be up around the end of the year.
“We have to get through the next couple months,” he added, as the rally ended.