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After voting to form a union seven and a half years ago, Comcast technicians at the Fairhaven, Massachusetts, garage finally have a first contract. Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 2322’s new two-year contract was ratified by 79 percent of the eligible membership on February 3.
In addition to significant wage and benefit improvements, new on-call benefits, and fairer distribution of overtime, the agreement improves job security by preventing layoffs if Comcast employs any contractors at the facility. If members are faced with dangerous working conditions, they now have the right to suspend work operations until a supervisor investigates and any hazards cleared.
Taking on the notoriously anti-union Comcast is no small feat. Comcast is the largest cable TV company and home Internet service provider in the U.S., and the nation’s third-largest home telephone service provider. Globally, it’s the second-largest broadcasting and cable television company behind only AT&T.
But while other telecom giants like Verizon and AT&T are heavily union, Comcast, like the cable industry as a whole, remains largely unorganized. The Fairhaven techs were the first group of Comcast workers in New England to unionize.
Wherever Comcast workers have voted to unionize, the trend in negotiations is settlements that closely mirror the company handbook, but add a grievance procedure and “just cause” protections against arbitrary firings. Although these are important steps forward and the foundation of any first contract, in many cases Comcast management has been able to argue that the pay and benefits of a union contract don’t match the cost of union dues.
After a narrow election win, getting a first contract is challenging. That’s especially true if the union cannot mount a credible strike threat. In an industry like cable, striking a largely non-union company like Comcast is difficult because work can be shifted to other garages or subbed-out to independent contractors. Then, despite workers’ high hopes, management engages in “surface bargaining”—making only the most superficial changes to its proposals. They hope to wear down the negotiating committee, that leaders will quit in frustration, and that union support will wither away.
That strategy has worked well elsewhere, but not in Fairhaven. Workers’ support didn’t wither away; it actually grew! Over the course of seven years of negotiations, management attempted to decertify the union three times. But with each vote, the percentage voting to stick with the union increased.
‘A STRONG FOUNDATION TO BUILD ON’
Seven years to negotiate a first contract? It took that long because these workers understand that they will never be able to realize their power if their union is isolated to Fairhaven alone. They wanted an agreement that they can take to workers at other Comcast facilities in Massachusetts and beyond.
“The techs showed amazing determination,” said Local 2322 Business Manager Eric Hetrick. “Once they won their union certification election, they used their Section 7 rights under the National Labor Relations Act to engage in ‘concerted activity’ and management’s obligation to bargain changes in wages and working conditions to stay united and keep the pressure on.”
“Comcast wanted us to believe that by uniting with our co-workers, we could lose our pay or benefits,” said Brian Almeida, a Fairhaven technician with 19 years of service. “However, through collective bargaining, we improved on every aspect of our jobs. Most importantly, we now have ‘just cause’ protections against unfair discipline or discharge and a written grievance procedure. We’ve got meaningful job security with new protections in writing against layoffs and our garage closing.”
“This first contract provides real job security and a strong foundation to build on for the future,” said Hetrick, who credited the support from other union members, state and local elected officials, and community organizations like Jobs with Justice and the Coalition for Social Justice with helping workers sustain their fight.
The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, introduced in the House and Senate earlier this month, would strengthen workers’ hand in bargaining first contracts. By providing for federal mediation followed by binding arbitration, if necessary, the act would prevent employers from dragging out negotiations for years.
Click on these links for a summary of the highlights of the new Comcast union contract and a chronology of the Comcast workers’ struggle for dignity and justice. For more about the Comcast workers’ union, visit Comcast Workers Unite.
Rand Wilson was assigned by the AFL-CIO to assist IBEW and CWA with Comcast organizing from 2007-2011. He’s currently an organizer and chief of staff at SEIU Local 888.