Many immigrant New Yorkers who were members of the labor union, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3, saw it as a pathway to the middle class. The union’s wages were good, as well as the benefits. But now, after a five-year strike against Spectrum with nothing to show for it, they believe the union took advantage of them.
Within the saga are two stunning details: Workers say their union officials stopped communicating with them in the third year of their strike, and now that a settlement agreement has been reached, it appears workers have received nothing.
The story, published today exclusively on Documented, is based on nearly four years of observation and information gathering. I spoke to my colleague Amir Khafagy, Documented’s Report for America Corps member who covers labor, about what he found.
Fisayo: Although the five-year strike has now ended, the union workers still have no idea what the settlement agreement Local 3 reached with Spectrum is. What was it like gathering information about the story and writing it?
Amir: For a while, there was nothing going on, until I heard news that the strike was over and the workers had no union anymore. I’ve never heard of a situation where a union voluntarily decided not to represent workers. I was shocked that no one was reporting this. Writing the story itself was about three weeks, including reporting about the latest.
Has the strike ended? That is also questionable. Because the union admits that the workers are still not working, and union officials are not communicating with them. So no one knows what exactly is going on. So if anything remains vague, that’s because we only know as much as we’ve been told. The union officials — nobody returned any of our phone calls — so if the workers got no communication, we definitely didn’t get any communication.
A labor lawyer you interviewed believes that “the union puts their own interests above its members,” and Munoz, one of the major people in the story, believes “the union threw us under the bus just to get the money that helps everybody but us.” What ‘interests’ and what does ‘everybody’ constitute?
At the heart of a union is its members, not its officials. To this day, Local 3 union has not had a meeting with workers to discuss what exactly the settlement agreement is, and they told them to go on strike. They said there was no other choice but to go on strike, so the workers trusted them. Local 3 members are very proud. To be a Local 3 member in New York City or in Queens, particularly, it’s a badge of honor.
We celebrated the Amazon labor union, and everyone’s so excited about how that might change the way how workers organize. But here we got a situation where the workers had no power in their own union. The union went above them. Essentially, the union said we’re not going to represent the workers anymore, even though they are the ones that pushed them. So what is this going to say for other people who want to join a union? It creates distrust.
What stood out the most for you in the story?
This is the longest ongoing strike in the United States. As the media began to pay more attention to labor issues, we started to see a lot more in the mainstream news about labor struggles. It was fascinating to me, and kind of absurd that this strike that was happening in the largest city in the United States was not getting continuous coverage. Read the rest of this interview on Documented
The Union’s leadership is mostly white, and the workers mostly Black and Latino workers who were on strike for five years — you barely saw them or heard them. They were essentially invisible. These workers were essentially abandoned by not just their labor union, but the mainstream labor movement in New York in general, and by progressive activists in general. You didn’t hear anybody really talk about them.
How did you find out about the story?
Local 3 in Queens is big. I have an uncle who’s an electrician, and he’s a member of Local 3. There’s a big housing complex in Queens, Flushing that is owned by Local 3 and thousands of people live there. So Local 3 is well known.
I was working at the time for an after-school program while I was still freelancing. I had just begun as a journalist, and I was late to work so I took an Uber. My Uber driver told me that he was a Spectrum worker and that he was on strike. And I said, you’re on strike? I couldn’t believe it. I know Local 3, and I just didn’t know something like that was happening. So, the whole ride to work, we were just talking about the strike, and he was telling me what was going on and what Spectrum was doing, and how he felt the union wasn’t paying any attention to what was going on and a lot of guys were taking jobs elsewhere.