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Spectrum Workers Sue Their Former Union

One of the country's longest strikes ended in a secret agreement. The workers are now suing to uncover what happened

Spectrum Workers are suing their union, The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 3, for failing to fairly represent them. The lawsuit alleges that Local 3 failed to notify workers that it had reached a settlement with Charter Communications, Spectrum’s parent company, nor did it inform workers of the nature of the settlement with Charter as well as failed to seek consent from the workers. 

Nearly 1,800 workers, many of whom are Black and Latino immigrants, went on strike, eventually becoming one of the longest labor strikes in American history.

The class action suit was initiated by Tracy Harris, who had worked for Spectrum for 10 years and was one of the few women working as a cable technician. She grew up in a union household and relied on her union’s health plan and pension. In 2016, soon after TimeWarner Cable was purchased by Spectrum, the company began to replace its union health insurance and pension plans with a company-run 401(k)and health plan. With an ailing mother to support, the strike was personal for Harris, and as the years dragged on she never thought of crossing the picket line. 

“For me, going across a strike line was never an option,” she said. “I’ve always been a strong union supporter. You don’t cross a picket line, that goes against the rules of being a union member. I’ll go find some other work if necessary but never would I cross.”

On June 2 of this year, Local 3 abruptly announced that the strike was over and that union would no longer be representing Spectrum employees. Harris and her fellow workers were left perplexed. Communication between the union and the striking workers it represented had long grown cold. Still, workers were shocked to learn that their own union no longer represented them and that they were given no opportunity to discuss it. 

“They didn’t send us a notification, they did not tell us in advance that this was their plan. They did nothing,” Harris said. “To this day I still have nothing that tells me that they dropped the strike and that they took money. I have no knowledge of nothing.”

Harris only found out about the settlement through Facebook groups that the striking workers used to share information. When workers attempted to reach out to their union for answers, information was sparse.

“The union never updated us on the status of what was going on,” said Harris. “We didn’t get no notifications that we were doing this, that, or the third. Even when you asked questions it was so vague. Nobody had any concrete answers on what happened and this was going on.”

Fed up and feeling like she was abandoned by Local 3, Harris was able to contact an attorney and filed the lawsuit on October 31. 

“I feel like we have no other choice,” she said. “We are walking away after putting in our livelihood, and our lives on hold, and we sacrificed everything.”

Attorney Arthur Z. Schwartz, who is lead counsel on the lawsuit, says that suing Local 3 is a tall order. They have to prove that the union failed in its duty to fairly represent its members and made decisions that were irrational. Although monetary damages are unlikely, Schwartz admits, his primary concern is to find out exactly what were the terms of the agreement that Local 3 entered with Spectrum. 

“They do have an obligation to give people the information and I know people made efforts to get the information,” he said. “Once we get the information we can decide where to go with it.”

Nevertheless, Schwartz is confident in his fundamental belief that the union filed its members.

“Being transparent with their members on why they make decisions and share information with them, that’s where they have a duty to do and they absolutely violated that duty in my opinion.”

Officials from Local 3 could not be reached for comment. 

Troy Wilcot, who was one of the leaders of the strike and is cautiously optimistic about the outcome of the suit.

“We don’t know what we can do or if we can do anything or are owed anything,” he said. “The biggest thing is to find out what is going on so I was very glad to see the lawsuit.” 

At the very least, Wilcot said that the lawsuit had sent a wave of excitement among the workers who were feeling all but defeated until now. It has given them renewed energy. 

“At least it got a lot of people to reengage in what’s been going. Hopefully, we’ll have some answers.”

For Harris, giving up is not an option. During the past five years, she took odd jobs to support herself and her mother who ultimately passed away during the course of the strike. Some of her co-workers had also passed away and others had lost their homes and marriages due to the strike.

“We walked away with nothing after five years of being on strike? For a strike that could’ve been resolved because you want them to pay more? That’s unfair beyond measure. They lead us and then dropped us so suing them is a way to hopefully get whole in some means.”

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