After more than a decade of dedicated, tireless efforts to reach a negotiated agreement, Comcast technicians working in Fairhaven, Mass., agreed in February on a first contract between Middleboro, Mass., Local 2322 and the massive cable conglomerate.
“It’s been scary stuff for a lot of the men and women there,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “Comcast has a reputation for being one of the most ardently anti-union companies in America, and this win could be just what it takes to give more cable techs the courage to take the leap and organize with the IBEW, too.”
Job security, said Second District Lead Organizer Steve Smith, was the chief issue solved by this new, two-year pact, ratified by the eligible membership 42-11 on Feb. 3.
“They saw that the company was making big changes and consolidations and increasing the use of contractors,” Smith said. “They understood the benefits of being in a union, to get the job security they needed, and they rallied around that.”
Founded as a small local cable operator in Mississippi in 1963, Comcast has since grown to become the largest cable TV company and home internet service provider in the U.S., worth an estimated $273 billion in 2020. The Fairhaven technicians install Xfinity cable service and are among very few union-represented Comcast shops in the U.S.
“They’re good at keeping the unions out,” said Local 2322 Business Manager Eric Hetrick, who estimates that less than 2% of Comcast is organized nationwide. His techs from Fairhaven are the first group of Comcast workers in New England to unionize, he said.
The push to organize was about job security from the start, Hetrick said. “Being at-will employees, they witnessed guys being laid off,” he said. “From day one, we wouldn’t let them accept a contract that we wouldn’t sign ourselves.”
In 2013, Fairhaven technician Scott Hartman told The Electrical Worker about one particularly outrageous stunt Comcast had pulled four years earlier, when a group of his co-workers — many boasting decades of service to Comcast — were suddenly fired and replaced with independent contractors. While the workers cleaned out their company-supplied trucks and vans, Hartman said, Comcast’s managers called in a line-up of taxis to take the newly unemployed workers to their homes.
All over the U.S., Comcast managers usually employ these and other, all-too-common corporate tactics, such as claiming that the cost of union dues outweighs any benefits of unionization. And because the company is so massive, it can afford to play the long game to try to wear down workers wanting to organize.
In Massachusetts, the IBEW proved that it, too, can be tenacious. The union’s battle in the Bay State started in 2010, when the technicians from the Fairhaven and Fall River shops, which have since merged, sought voluntary bargaining-unit recognition from Comcast. The following year, they successfully petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to supervise an election. So far, so good.
But then, Comcast’s bully tactics won over too many of the shops’ technicians, and the unit lost its first vote to join Local 2322 in December 2011, 52-42. That didn’t stop the local from continuing to try, though, and a little more than a year later in 2013, the technicians at both garages voted 49-41 in favor of joining the local and beginning negotiations for a contract.
Afterward, Comcast twice backed efforts to get the technicians to decertify affiliation with Local 2322, Smith said, “but we had small victories along the way.” A March 2016 decertification vote lost badly, 51-27; two years later, a similar effort went down in flames, 48-22.
Even so, it still would take another 21/2 years after that second decertification vote before the parties would reach a tentative agreement. That happened this past January; the pact that was ratified on Feb. 3 was crafted as a blueprint for other potential IBEW shops across the U.S. interested in pursuing their own organizing efforts.
“Comcast continually tried to convince us that joining a union was a risk, but we knew that collective bargaining would actually help us improve every part of our jobs,” said Brian Almeida, a Comcast tech with nearly 20 years of experience. “We now have protections against unfair discipline or discharge, a written grievance procedure, and new protections in writing against layoffs and our garage closing.”
“When we were going through organizing, Comcast held long captive audience meetings,” Hetrick said. “Brian and the other guys were courageous enough to push back. The techs showed amazing determination and perseverance to win.” The business manager credited his local’s success to the support it received from other IBEW and sister-union members, state and local elected officials and community organizations that helped workers sustain their fight.
“I always stayed in touch. I don’t go away until they tell me to go away,” said Smith with a laugh. “This was a savvy group, and a lot of the time, they really fought hard. It took a long time, but they stayed hopeful.”
Smith also noted the courage of some of the workers, who appeared on television programs running on local cable access channels — some, ironically, owned in some cases by Comcast — to make their case for unionization.
“It’s all about the great leadership of this workgroup,” Smith said. “They kept the members informed every step of the way.”
Life changed for the techs in another important way after the ratification vote. “They realized how much their stress levels dropped,” Smith said. “They started to think, ‘Gee, this isn’t a bad job.’”