Comcast Sues Oakland Over Union Law

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Comcast has filed suit against Oakland for what the operator believes is overreaching by an activist city council.

Attorneys for the operator believe city leaders violated federal labor laws when Oakland enacted an ordinance meant to ease union organizing at the local cable company, according to a lawsuit filed March 24 against the city and its administrator, Deborah Edgerly, by Comcast of California/Colorado LLC.

The lawsuit specifically challenges an ordinance, approved Feb. 28, on a 5-0 council vote. The ordinance requires city franchisees to “agree” to submit to card checks to enable the formation of a union. Normally, work groups mulling selection of a union have a campaign period followed by a secret ballot. When card checks are adopted, workers can authorize a union merely by signing a card indicating their support.

WORRY OVER DISRUPTIONS

The council members, in approving the ordinance, indicated they changed unionization rules because labor strife impacts residents and could cost the city money, in the form of decreased franchise fees due to disrupted service, for instance.

But in its suit, the cable company argues that the organizing activities Oakland addressed in the ordinance fall under the authority of the National Labor Relations Board. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco, also alleges the ordinance is pre-empted by the Labor Management Relations Act and by the due-process clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The city attorney's office is reviewing the suit prior to making any comment, Oakland officials said.

The Communications Workers of America local urged the city to adopt an ordinance to revise organizing rules. The CWA currently represents 75 of the 200 cable workers in Oakland.

“Comcast respects the choices that all of its employees make on the question of union representation,” said Andrew Johnson, vice president of communications for Comcast in the San Francisco Bay area. “Comcast firmly believes that having a secret-ballot election, as opposed to open pressure for signatures on cards, is the best process for employees to determine whether they want union representation.”

Comcast officials have long argued that union representation is not necessary, as the company appropriately compensates its employees. The unions argue Comcast uses the campaign period to either build goodwill toward the company with sudden outings or other rewards, or scares employees away from unionization with misinformation about how much benefits and dues will cost under union contracts.

SECOND SQUABBLE

The suit is actually the second action taken against the city in response to the ordinance. Oakland and Comcast were at the end of a four-year-long franchise-renegotiation period when the ordinance surfaced.

Comcast had tentatively agreed, according to Johnson, to a renewal that would, among other things, provide the city with more than $17 million in cash and services to resolve past franchise violations. Comcast inherited those contract issues when it absorbed AT&T Broadband, the city's previous operator. The settlement would have been among the largest ever paid by Comcast to settle a franchise dispute, according to Johnson.

But once the city approved the ordinance, Comcast notified Oakland that the tentative agreement had been taken off the table. The notice cited the ordinance, but also noted more than two years had passed since major parts of the tentative agreement had been brokered. In that time, the competitive field has changed, including the rise of Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc. as possible video competitors in the state. The contract would have bound Comcast to service requirements, such as institutional network, that are not likely to be required of a new market entrant.

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