fbpx America's Longest Ongoing Strike Has Ended, but Workers are Left Feeling Betrayed by their Union - Documented
 

At Spectrum Cable, America’s Longest Ongoing Strike Ended With Workers Unhappy

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3 dropped the workers they represented to settle with Spectrum after five years

It’s difficult for 65-year-old Mario Munoz to remember what exactly he has been fighting for the last five years. When his union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3, first called for a strike against his employer, Spectrum Cable, in 2017, the union said they would be fighting to preserve the worker’s medical and pension plan. Without the insurance, he would be forced to pay $800 a month for his wife’s medical expenses due to her struggles with chronic pain. Placing his faith in the union, when the time came to cast his vote, Munoz voted yes, but with reservations. 

“I voted but with the understanding that the union was going to try to work with the company,” he said. “The strike was just in case there were no other options. But I would have loved to have other opinions.”

As one year snowballed into five years without a strike settlement, Munoz now looks back at the vote with regret. “If you ask me what my feeling is now, after what happened, I believe the union took advantage of us,” he said.

After so many years on the picket line, the strike gained the distinction of being the longest ongoing strike in the country. At its height, 1,800 Spectrum cable technicians, many of whom are Black or Latino, walked off the job after contract negotiations broke down between Local 3 and Spectrum due to Spectrum’s insistence on replacing the union’s health and pension plan with a company-run one. Yet as the years progressed, communication between the majority-white Local 3 leadership and the striking workers grew infrequent.

On the picket line, the numbers of striking workers had dwindled to just a few hundred hardcore members refusing to cross the picket line. Many others either returned to work or left the industry altogether. Still, what held together the few dedicated members was the hope that the union would eventually reach a fair settlement. However, on June 2, Local 3 quietly published a press release essentially stating that the strike was over and that Local 3 would no longer be representing Spectrum employees, even though many workers continued paying dues to the union.

The union stated that a settlement agreement had been reached with the cable company and an exit fee will be paid by Spectrum Cable to Local 3’s pension plan for withdrawing contributions to the union’s pension fund. The union also said that it was unable to disclose or discuss the full details of the settlement agreement. News of the settlement left the few hundred remaining workers feeling abandoned by the union. Confusion ensued as many workers did not know if they were entitled to anything in the settlement or would receive any retroactive compensation for all the years they were on strike.  This was made worse by the fact that the workers had to hear about the settlement second-hand.

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As each day strike added up to another year, many workers no longer were able to stand on the picket line. Some crossed and returned to work for Spectrum. Others found jobs for other companies. For those who stayed on strike, the cost was enormous. Some lost their homes, others lost their families. What kept them from giving up was the hope that in the end, all their sacrifices would prove justified. Yet, communication from the union drew down to a trickle by the strike’s third year. In the last chapter meeting with the striking workers, three years ago, Local 3 was tight-liped about the strike’s progress.

“All the union was telling us was that things were going on behind the scenes and they couldn’t divulge any more information,” said Ayobami Ojedapo, a Nigerian Spectrum worker. “That’s all they would tell us.”

When Ojedapo got word that the strike was over, via text from a fellow worker,  he was shocked. Just a few months ago, on March 23, on the strike’s 5-year adversary, Ojedapo and his fellow workers showed up unannounced at Local 3’s headquarters in Flushing, Queens demanding to find out what was going on with the course of the strike. 

“We were like, yo, we haven’t heard anything in over three years and like what’s going on behind the scenes,” said Ojedapo. “Five years of us being on strike, I had coworkers who died, it’s not good enough.” 

In hindsight, during the meeting with Local 3 officials, Ojedapo felt like the union was just placating the members. They made no mention of a settlement agreement in the works. 

“They said that they were going to try to keep us in the loop but it was just BS talk basically,” he said. “They told us that the company has billions of dollars and they only had millions of dollars. They didn’t tell us they were throwing in the towel. Marriages broke up because of the strike. Women left their husbands and took their kids. It was bad.”

In fact, of the 5 workers Documented spoke to for this story, nobody had heard the news that the strike was over from the union. Munoz only found out that the strike was over from the chat group workers set up to share information and resources with each other. He was left livid. 

“They haven’t said anything to us directly,” Munoz said. 

Union officials, including Business Manager Christopher Erikson, did not respond to Documented’s multiple requests for comment but a labor lawyer with inside knowledge of the New York labor movement who spoke on the condition of anonymity believes that the union put their own interests above its members. Spectrum Cable did not return requests for comment as well. 

“What Chris Erickson did was horrible,” they said. “At one point it could have been settled but Chris didn’t want to settle it so all these people are collateral damage. It’s a really bad mark on unions.” 

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Roots of the Strike

Munoz finds it hard to recall a time when he wasn’t a cable installer. From the time he arrived in New York via Guatemala in 1982, he’s been immersed in the world of cable. After working several odd jobs for years, in 1990, Munoz finally found career stability when he got a job with Queens Inner Unity Cable as a part-time contractor. As the years progressed, Queens Inner Unity Cable eventually merged with Time Warner Cable. In 2016, Charter Communications, known as Spectrum Cable, purchased Time Warner for $56.7 billion, making it the largest provider of cable TV, internet and telephone service in New York State and the second-largest cable provider in the entire country. 

Soon after the merger, Munoz began to feel like the company culture began to change. Once free to work at your own pace, Spectrum Cable began to push its employees to work faster and for longer hours. Workers felt micromanaged. For Munoz, as long as he was able to pay his bills and earn a living he had no grievances. The second year of the merger, however, he began to fear the company’s new direction. 

“When Spectrum took over Time Warner, they said that there weren’t going to be any changes but as they started taking over after the second year they started cutting the pension and the health care.”

With his wife’s medical condition in mind, Munoz was not willing to sit back and watch his health coverage erode. Munoz’s coworker, Peter Shor, a technician for the company since 1999, also began to grow weary with Spectrum Cable. 

“Us guys in the union, out in the field doing services, really very rarely saw management come out to our jobs,” Shor said. “When Spectrum Cable came in, they would roll up on the job asking a lot of questions. It was a sign for me that they were critiquing us for the wrong reasons.”

Still, Shor also was willing to bite his tongue and do his job until word got around that his medical coverage might be cut. With a young daughter battling Leukemia and in desperate need of a bone marrow transplant, he could not sit by idly. 

“We had to do what we had to do,” he said. “ At the time it seemed they gave us no choice because the company was not negotiating with us in good faith.”

Shortly after Spectrum solidified its dominant position in the New York cable market, the company began to propose a series of changes to its contract with Local 3. The changes included the elimination of its current pension and health care plan, replaced by company-controlled health and retirement plans. It also wished to eliminate weekend overtime pay and a reduction of paid holidays. On May 23, 2017, with the workers growing agitated, and negotiations between Spectrum and Local 3 breaking down, the union voted to strike. 

For the first few weeks, Local 3’s members were extremely vocal and visible, picketing several Spectrum locations across the five boroughs. Although the workers were only receiving a weekly stipend of $150 from the union’s strike fund, morale was high. Yet, as the weeks began to turn into months, the situation on the ground and the mood among the workers began to sour. Instead of negotiating with Local 3, Spectrum Cable began to consolidate its power by initiating an aggressive recruitment campaign to replace the striking workers, with many of the replacement workers coming in from out of state. 

“I probably thought it was going to take only a few months and definitely not even a year,” said Munoz. “If the union did their job better they would have seen hundreds of employees from other cable companies are going to be free.”

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Keeping the Fight Alive

As the strike dragged on, communications from the union began to dissipate. 

“In the beginning, the union leadership was great, but as a whole, I think they treated us like the sacrificial lamb,” Feliciano said. 

Whatever little money they received from the strike fund quickly shriveled up. Many workers began to feel the intense financial and emotional pressure of being out of work for so long. 

“A strike like that takes a toll on your mental health,” said Shor. “Guys had breakdowns. Guys started drinking. It’s a nightmare.”

Because of that pressure, soon, many of the strikers began to cross the picket line. Shore had colleagues he was close to but once they crossed the picket line, “I don’t want to say what I really would like to do to them,” he said. “My wife even told me one time, why don’t I go back? But I said I’d be turning back on my brothers and sisters. We have what we have because of the union.”

In 2019, Spectrum dealt another blow to the striking worker’s morale by launching a campaign to decertify the union. Local 3 claimed the company was bribing replacement workers with benefits and raises if they voted to oust the union. 

Meanwhile, the striking workers felt like they were left alone to fend for themselves. Regular meetings with Local 3 were no longer taking place and many workers were either returning to work for the company or quitting. The worker’s file took it upon themselves to keep the momentum alive. 

“At this point, especially after all that happened, to me when you say the union, it’s the brothers and sisters,” said Feliciano. “ It’s the boots on the ground. The leadership, not so much.”

When workers were in desperate need of gas money or needed help paying the rent, other workers would pool their money to help out. With meetings no longer taking place and no labor actions being scheduled, the workers took it upon themselves to keep the strike visible in the public eye.  

“We made a lot of banners,” said Munoz. “We made a lot of T-shirts. We were going to Albany, talking to politicians. We did it on our own, not through the union. We did all that on our own, stuff that the union could have done but didn’t do.”

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Hard Times Ahead

Despite workers’ best efforts to keep the strike alive, many of even the most die-hard members had to find other work just to support themselves.  Local 3 offered the striking workers the option to move into the electrician division until the strike was resolved. Yet, the workers would have a starting pay of $18 an hour and they would have to start over with no seniority. For Feliciano, that just wouldn’t cut it. 

“I don’t want to have to start like I’m a 15-year-old kid. I’m not saying make me a journeyman [a worker who is skilled in a trade or craft and has completed a union apprenticeship] but don’t start me off making $18 an hour. I’ve been a journeyman for over 10 years, that should speak for something. Who can do that at my age with my expenses and my children.”

Unlike many of his fellow workers, Shor couldn’t take a job outside the union and start from scratch in Local 3’s elections division. He depended on the medical insurance the union provided to support his daughter’s treatment. The financial strains of the strike ultimately destroyed his marriage of 15 years. 

“The amount of tension and stress going on with the strike was taking a huge strain on [my] income and put a lot of strain on [my] marriage,” he said. 

Moving Forward

It’s hard to say whether or not the union was able to settle the contract without the input of the workers. They certainly feel like they should have had some input on the direction of the strike. Given that the details of the settlement are kept under wraps, its legality is still speculation. From what little has been released about the settlement, it appears that workers have received nothing. Munoz is attempting to organize with his fellow workers a town hall event to discuss the settlement and next steps. Currently, Munoz and his fellow workers are talking to labor lawyers to see if they have a case against the union. They hope that after five years on the picket line they can have something to show for it. 

“I honestly believe the union threw us under the bus just to get the money that helps everybody but us,’ he said. “We are looking for any labor lawyer to tell if we have a case against the union for the way they handled the strike. To us right now it’s the union’s fault. But if there is no possibility to sue, we don’t have any other option.”

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