News

Mass. Organizing

3/21/2008 8:00 PM Eastern

Comcast is in the crosshairs of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which has vowed to demonstrate nationwide at Comcast facilities in an effort to organize the company’s employees.

Members of Local 2222 in Massachusetts passed out literature at work sites around Boston last week to convince workers to consider union representation. The union has also set up a Web site specifically for the cable company’s workers at comcastworkersunited.com.

There, workers are greeted with a video by the union’s international president, Ed Hill. He notes that over the last few years, there has been a boom in telecommunications businesses and Comcast has become the largest cable company in the country.

Hill also notes that last year, Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts earned $27.8 million in compensation in part because of the “protection and security” of an employment contract. Hill said workers should have the option of the same protection.

The unionization drive comes at a time when union membership growth is generally stagnant, according to a January report by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unions represent approximately 12% of the nation’s workforce, a level that has held steady since at least 2006, according to the agency.

Frank Snyder, an organizer for the AFL-CIO who was designated by the IBEW to speak on its organizing effort, said Comcast is the fourth largest U.S. telecommunications company. “It didn’t become that without talented workers,” he said.

Postings on worker complaint sites and blogs convinced the union that dissatisfaction is nationwide, opening the possibility for organizing those workers, Snyder said.

“Comcast workers are looking for security,” he said. “They’re no different from other workers in the same field.”

Unions have been keeping tabs on Comcast at all levels. Activities have ranged from checking to see that local offices keep, and make available, required public records to attending the company’s annual meeting to agitate for change in its stock structure. Organizers would like a one-share, one-vote policy that would serve to dilute the power of Roberts’s Class-B stock holdings.

Comcast only has 18 union shops, divided between the Communications Workers of America and IBEW. That translates to about 2,000 workers, or 2% of Comcast’s 90,000 workers, according to Snyder. There were more union shops at Comcast — inherited through its acquisitions of former Tele-Communications Inc. and AT&T Broadband systems — but two dozen unions were later decertified by the workers, Snyder said.

The union official contended the decertifications were the result of Comcast’s refusal to bargain on new contracts, a strategy that discouraged workers from continuing with unions.

IBEW will focus on Comcast sites in Massachusetts, as well as New Hampshire, New Jersey, Chicago, Portland, Ore., and Seattle, Snyder said.

Organizers are taking on a tough nut. Comcast executives have always maintained that the Philadelphia-based cable operator’s workers are well compensated and do not need union representation.

Comcast has been known to play hardball in order to fend off unions.

In 2006, Oakland, Calif., passed a pro-union resolution, at the urging of the CWA local, to require those city franchisees to allow workers the chance to vote to consider a union.

In response, Comcast withdrew a renegotiated franchise proposal for Oakland. The result of three years of talks, the new franchise was to provide $17 million in community benefits, such as free connections.

Comcast also sued in federal court to challenge the Oakland ordinance. The city council backed down, rescinding the law.

September