Donna Doherty has been a New York Local 3 member for 38 years. She’s worked for Charter/Spectrum and the companies that preceded it as the city’s cable television franchisee, serving as one of the first woman technicians on the job and advancing to foreman in the technical operations department.
|Donna Doherty, a New York Local 3 member and a foreman in Charter/Spectrum’s technical operations department.
She’s proud of that title. She resisted suggestions to be called a “forewoman” when she earned it.
“When I got my shirt, I kept foreman on it,” said Doherty, who now works for Charter/Spectrum out of upper Manhattan. “It’s my title and I wanted to be like everyone else. I said that no one is buying me lunch and no one is carrying my tools.”
Lately, Doherty and her Local 3 brothers and sisters have been carrying signs on the picket line instead. They have been on strike against Charter/Spectrum since March 28 as decades of labor peace between Local 3 and the city’s cable providers ended with a thud.
Despite the pressure of many New York elected officials, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, there’s no end in sight. Like other Local 3 members, Doherty is angry the strike has gone on this long, especially as Charter/Spectrum refuses to negotiate off its initial positions while bringing in record profits. Strike benefits have run out and members’ savings are being depleted.
“They really don’t care,” Doherty said of Charter/Spectrum, which took over as the city’s franchise holder when it completed its merger with Time Warner Cable last year. “They have the money allocated for this. It looks like they are trying to starve us back. I know people right now who lost their apartments and are living in their cars.”
In the past, when a new company took over, it stayed out of the way and let the technicians and engineers develop New York City’s cable and internet systems, Doherty said. She took pride in a career – like other Local 3 members, Doherty says it was more than a job -- that allowed her to take care of her two sons.
She said she is probably financially secure enough to retire, but doing so during a strike would feel like betraying other Local 3 members. So, she watches her expenses closely and spends as much time as possible attending rallies and helping wherever needed.
Others say they are doing the same thing. And, they are finding strength through each other.
“Charter could have paid for everything we wanted for the next 10 or 20 years over,” said Troy Walcott, a survey technician for the company and a Local 3 steward. “It’s not about the money for them. It’s about the obsession they have of having total control of whatever we want to do.”
|New York Local 3 Business Manager Christopher Erikson, shown here at the 2016 IBEW Convention in St. Louis, said, ‘Working families lose when unions don’t fight for what they have earned from highly profitable companies.’
Local 3 Business Manager Christopher Erikson, who also is chairman of the International Executive Council, said members understand their predecessors made sacrifices to ensure the benefits they have today. That’s why they have remained unified during the strike.
“Working families lose when unions don’t fight for what they have earned from highly profitable companies,” Erikson said. “Charter/Spectrum has shown no respect for the people who help provide those profits. It’s an insult not just to our members, but to nearly everyone in New York City, which prides itself on a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.”
Charter/Spectrum has refused to budge off its initial demands to eliminate the health plan it currently has with Local 3 members, in which the company pays most of the cost, and has proposed a plan that puts the financial burden on employees.
It also proposes to eliminate company contributions to the pension and medical reimbursements funds, eliminate overtime pay on Saturday and Sunday and reduce the number of paid holidays, and give it greater flexibility to subcontract work normally done by bargaining unit employees.
Warren Nicholas and other Local 3 members said it’s clear what Charter/Spectrum is trying to do.
“I think they’re trying to bust the unions,” said Nicholas, a technician for the company and Local 3 member for 15 years. “It’s not like they’re hurting to give us money. They’re doing OK.”
|New York Local 3 member Karega Bennet, a U.S. Navy veteran and technician for Charter/Spectrum.
In 2016, Charter/Spectrum took in $29 billion in revenue and CEO Tom Rutledge made $98.5 million, making him the highest paid CEO in the United States, according to the New York Times. Its stock price has gone up 64 percent in the last year.
But it refuses to even talk with the Local 3 bargaining team. Only three negotiating sessions have been held since the strike’s beginning, despite the presence of a federal mediator.
“It’s nerve-racking,” said Karega Bennett, a U.S. Navy veteran who has been a Local 3 member for seven years and is a technician for Charter/Spectrum. “When I came from the service, I was looking at this as a career for me. I’m single and have no kids, but I want to have a family and provide for them.
“This has really been an eye opener, with the uncertainty of paying for my rent, paying my car note and paying for my insurance.”
Doherty said Charter/Spectrum showed little respect for its employees from the start. Not long after the merger with Time Warner, it had management members who had never worked in cable installation shadow Doherty and other foremen for two weeks, Then, they made them their supervisors.
“They had no idea what they were doing,” she said. “A real slap in the face.”
Despite making these changes, Charter/Spectrum refused to update its equipment, said Marcanthony Torres, a Local 3 member and foreman in the plant engineering department. Not only did that lead to unsafe working conditions, it also made it difficult for workers to meet standards of a new system Charter installed to measure employee performance.
Longtime employees who had been given positive performance reviews in the past were now being told they were subject to termination in 30 days, he said. They were pressured to cut corners. Torres, who works much of the time underground, said employees feel pressure to work in unsafe conditions.
“You were set up to fail,” he said. “It started to become a place where it became uncomfortable to work and there was really no way to beat the [performance] metric.”
Torres is married with five children. His wife has a good job, so that eases some of the financial stress, but not all of it. Three of his children are enrolled in private schools and another two are in day care. He wonders how much longer he’ll be able to pay for that.
Instead of working for Charter, he attends rallies with fellow Local 3 members and tries to keep in regular touch with the 23 people who normally work under him on the job. They meet every Thursday.
|New York Local 3 member Marcanthony Torres, a foreman in Charter/Spectrum’s plant engineering department.
Some of those meetings get emotional, Torres said. Stories of taking other jobs, or members having to explain to their children why they can’t afford things they had been able to in the past, are common.
“We do that for support,” he said. “We’re a really tight knit group and we want to make sure everyone is aware of the repercussions because of what is going on.”
Bennett has taken side jobs delivering pizza and working security at concerts. Like others, he remains supportive of Local 3. He said he looks forward to returning to work, but the strike’s length has him wondering if he needs to find a new job.
Nicholas is angry, but he says he isn’t going to walk away from a company at which he’s worked for 15 years and “give up my time because of corporate greed.”
Local 3 has received some high-profile support. Actor and Academy Award winner Matt Damon, veteran character actor and Emmy Award winner James Cromwell and social activist and legendary rap star Kurtis Blow have joined members at rallies and on the picket lines.
They also got a boost last week when de Blasio said the city would perform an audit of its agreement with Charter/Spectrum, investigating if the company violated it by bringing in workers from outside the city to replace the striking workers.
“As a steward, my focus has been on a lot of the stressful things going on,” Walcott said. “I get calls from people about to get kicked out of their house. I get calls from people who were depending on the medical plan that now can’t pay their bills. That really bothers me mentally and I feel like that’s on my shoulders. What I’ve learned is that this company really doesn’t care.”