The Electrical Worker online
July 2013

One Year After 'No' Vote,
Mass. Comcast Techs Go IBEW
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In his years working as a Comcast tech in southern Massachusetts, Scott Hartman never worried about job security — even as an at-will employee.

"I'd always felt secure on my job," said the father of two with 25 years in the business. "It was never really a major issue in mind."

But Hartman's work climate turned colder one day four years ago when he heard about a group of co-workers serving a nearby area who were suddenly — and without explanation — laid off. Many were veteran cable and fiber optic installation technicians who had given decades to the company. Workers were forced to clean out their company trucks. Management stationed taxis outside to take home the newly unemployed, who were replaced with contractors.

"Those workers had families to provide for and mortgages to pay, and their hard work and effort suddenly meant nothing," Hartman said. "That was an extremely harsh reality to accept."

Despite that scare, Hartman said he still felt reasonably safe in his job. Known as a leader around the shop, Hartman's years of experience and respect for management and co-workers alike have helped him earn a reputation as someone to be counted on. "I love what I do," he said many times during a phone interview for this article.

The First Campaign

So when an IBEW organizing drive began in early 2011 to try to bring an amplified voice to workers covering the South Coast of the state, Hartman thought it over. And he decided he was better on his own.

"During that election, I was on the other side," he said. "I used to be against the union. I just didn't believe we needed it. Personally, I didn't have any real problems or complaints."

His co-workers largely followed suit, voting narrowly against IBEW representation from Middleboro Local 2322 in mid-December 2011.

Activists familiar with the campaign said it was a typical set of management tactics that thwarted the effort. "Comcast made a laundry list of promises that they failed to deliver on," said IBEW Lead Organizer Steve Smith, who has spent years working to organize employees at one of the most profitable — but lowest-paying — corporations in the U.S.

But promised wage increases never materialized, work remained stressful and morale was waning.

Failed Promises Change Attitudes

"After the election, and things got back to normal, I sat back and realized how I was suddenly not feeling so comfortable with things," Hartman said. He cites a series of misleading statements from management as part of what shook his foundation.

At the same time, there was a separate group of techs who remained pro-IBEW. So when activists ramped up organizing efforts last fall, management pulled out the stops. Captive audience meetings. Union-busting attorneys. Disinformation about the IBEW's intentions. And despite his confidence in his abilities, Hartman says he couldn't shake that image of a mass layoff four years earlier.

"As I sat through those [captive audience] meetings, it made me realize that maybe I do really need protection in a union," he said. "I'm vulnerable."

Then there were the headlines in the business sections of newspapers trumpeting massive company profits. USA Today also ran a feature last spring entitled "Eight Companies That Most Owe Workers a Raise." At the top? Comcast.

"In fiscal 2012, Comcast's net income was $6.2 billion, a nearly 50 percent increase from the previous year," the editors wrote. "In the past 12 months, the company's stock rose by roughly 44 percent … Comcast customer care and direct sales jobs often pay modestly. The average salary for a Customer Account Executive at Comcast was just $13.39 an hour."

And while techs like Hartman make more than the front-line service employees, the pattern of low-wage work yielding high profits for management runs deep.

Redoubled Push Yields Victory

Changing course, Hartman and a majority of his co-workers voted "yes" for IBEW representation in an NLRB-certified election April 24, pulling off what was an admittedly challenging quest for workers' rights at a goliath company just one year before.

The 96 workers — who are based out of the Fall River and Fairhaven shops and service customers in more than a dozen cities in the Bay State — are now members of Middleboro Local 2322. Activists are mobilizing for first contract talks, which they hope will happen soon.

Other IBEW activists integral in the campaign win included International Representative Carol Fitzgerald, Local 2322 Business Manager Eric Hetrick and Local 2322 steward Derek Rose. Smith, the lead organizer, offered special appreciation to Second District International Vice President Frank Carroll for his support.

"We have an awful lot of work ahead of us, but these employees are dedicated and want positive change," Smith said. "This vote is a great beginning, and it should give hope to other Comcast workers nationwide looking to stand up for a stronger voice on the job."

Comcast's profits nearly doubled since 2008, which allowed CEO Brian Roberts to reap nearly $30 million last year, the USA Today reports. But the company will strongly oppose efforts to give workers their fair share of these profits, according to East Windsor, N.J., Local 827 member Rich Spieler.

"For workers to stand up and raise their voice for decent wages and security takes an extraordinary amount of guts, trust and solidarity in the workplace," said Spieler, who sits on Local 827's executive board and is secretary-treasurer of an IBEW council representing Comcast workers.

Part of Comcast's strategy to fight unionization, Spieler said, is to draw out the time between successful elections and first contract negotiations. In the interim, the company will attempt to sow discontent among employees in an effort to squash the efforts workers make to obtain concrete gains in wages and benefits.

But Spieler maintains optimism. In spite of these challenges, about 1,000 workers throughout the East Coast and beyond have secured agreements from the company. "Where we have seen strong bonds between workers who have organized, these IBEW members have gotten the company to agree to a fair contract despite Comcast's intention not to," he said.

The IBEW currently services contracts for members at Downers Grove, Ill., Local 21; Philadelphia Local 98; Sheffield, Ala., Local 558; East Windsor, N.J., Local 827; and Bethlehem, Pa., Local 1600.

And with tenacity, Spieler said, that list will only grow.

Gathering Momentum

Organizers and pro-IBEW employees say that spirit is spreading to other shops. After the win for Massachusetts workers was broadcast to potential members nationwide, Comcast employees in Vineland, N.J., successfully petitioned May 21 for an NLRB election. If they win, 91 new members will gain representation from East Windsor Local 827.

A May 30 e-mail sent by an activist employee to fellow Vineland Comcast techs refutes management's claim that unionization will harm the work force.

"They say that we lose our voice if we become a union," wrote the employee, who declined to be named in this story. "We don't — we become one loud voice together. They say 'the union' like it's a third party that will speak for us in our place. We will be the union. The union is us. We negotiate, we vote on the contract, and we speak for ourselves."

In Massachusetts, Hartman is quick to emphasize that his "yes" vote and continued activism aren't reactionary or emotional. If anything, he says, it's simply logical.

"I can't stress enough that it's not 'us' against 'them,'" he said. "I never want to go to work and fight with my bosses. I get along great, and I'm certainly not looking to clash and bang heads. My support for the IBEW is all about job security — for my family's well-being and to ensure my future at a company I enjoy working for."


Despite massive company pushback, Comcast techs in southern Massachusetts voted for IBEW representation in April. The 96 workers are now members of Middleboro Local 2322.

Photo credit: Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user D.C.Atty