Oakland Pols Back Union’s Recruiting Bid

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Comcast Corp. workers in Oakland, Calif., could achieve union representation if the majority signs cards indicating support for it — if the city government approves a municipal ordinance on Feb. 21.

The ordinance would allow for “card checks,” which eases organization efforts, said Communications Workers of America cable field coordinator Lisa Morowitz. The ordinance would cut the lengthy time frame leading up to an election, a time during which Comcast “bullies” workers into rejecting unions, she said. The Oakland system has roughly 200 workers, about 75 of whom are union members under agreements which date back through several owners.

Throughout the country, union locals and Comcast have had pitched battles over attempts to organizers workers with the No. 1 U.S. cable company. Unions call Comcast an “abusive employer,” but the Philadelphia-based cable operator asserts that most votes result in union rejection because employees are treated well and adequately compensated.

BIG IN BAY AREA

The union’s attention-getting efforts have had an especially high profile in the San Francisco Bay area, where the CWA attracted other unions to join it in an informational picket line outside the opening session of the National Show in San Francisco last year.

On Valentine’s Day, CWA members picketed Comcast’s Oakland office to protest the firing of a non-union worker who spoke out in favor of unions. Comcast, citing employee records confidentiality, would not comment on the fired worker, Will Goodo.

In Oakland, a heavily unionized town, the city council tentatively approved the “card check” ordinance on Feb. 6. The ordinance excludes federal franchisees operating in the city, such as maritime unions. It was passed over objections from Comcast, but faces a second vote for final approval this week.

According to the ordinance, city rights-of-way are a unique and physically limited resource that’s put at risk during conflicts between labor and management. Risks include loss of franchise fees, efficient use of sidewalks during pickets and the possibility of the delay or cessation of services.

The ordinance notes that federal law authorizes employers to “voluntarily” agree to card-check proceedings. It adds the ordinance is not pro-union, but that the action is taken to protect public infrastructure. A card check would be conducted by a third party and would be subject to binding arbitration.

OTHER POT SHOTS

The Oakland council is known for taking positions on a wide range of issues. On the same agenda, the panel declared a local health emergency related to lack of access to medical marijuana.

The labor ordinance comes at a critical time. According to Comcast officials, the parties are in the final stages of the agreement for a 10-year contract extension. The terms would include adopting a memorandum of understanding, inherited by Comcast from the previous franchisee, AT&T Broadband.

That operator agreed in principle to provide the city with $17.4 million in cash and services to resolve franchise violations, such as the delayed plant upgrade in the city. That would be one of the largest settlements Comcast has ever paid, according to Andrew Johnson, communications vice president for the San Francisco Bay area.

Comcast would build an institutional network that could save Oakland $1 million a year in costs for communications between city agencies, according to Johnson.

The labor ordinance could trigger litigation, as Comcast believes the council action usurps the authority of the National Labor Relations Board, which standardizes and supervises union elections.

To demonstrate its opposition to the planned final vote on the city labor ordinance, Comcast planned late last week to hand-deliver a letter to city officials, warning that the $17.4 million settlement agreement would be taken off the table if the ordinance received a final approval vote Feb. 21. Litigation is an option, should the city proceed with the policy.

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