When Tanisha Smythe started at Time Warner Cable in New York a decade ago she was living in a shelter with her newborn son. Seven months after Smythe and nearly 1,800 other members of New York Local 3 went on strike, she is facing a return to one.
“All the savings for my son and myself has gone. Everything I have worked toward is gone,” Smythe said. “I came to this company from being homeless to actually owning my own apartment in a co-op. Now I am behind and they told us to pay but I can’t get it all situated. I don’t know where I’m going to go.”
A year and a half before striking, Smythe became a journeyperson service technician at Spectrum, the third largest cable company in the U.S. after Comcast, created when Charter Communications bought Time Warner Cable for $70 billion in 2016.
It had taken years, but, it was supposed to bring a bump in salary and more challenging assignments.
But after four years working without a contract, Spectrum management presented a poisonous contract proposal that would eliminate company contributions to the pension and medical reimbursements funds, overtime pay on Saturday and Sunday, reduce the number of paid holidays, and give it greater flexibility to subcontract work normally done by bargaining unit employees.
The average Spectrum worker could lose up to $40,000 a year in pay and benefits, said Local 3 Business Representative Derek Jordan. In exchange management offered, at best, a few dollars more an hour, much of which was required by an increase in the city’s minimum wage.
Yet, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings, the St. Louis-based company took in $29 billion in revenue in 2016 and the stock price soared 70 percent in the last year.
On March 28, the membership rejected the offer and went on strike. A strike authorization vote was taken months before by the membership and was approved.
Now about to lose the only home her son has ever known, Smythe said she has thought about the decision.
“To be in this situation is not easy, but I was in favor of the strike then and I still am,” she said. “These aren’t just jobs. We were planning to keep these the rest of our life. The company is trying to take away our careers, and we want them back.”
Jordan said Smythe is far from alone.
“We see it for what it is. Other unions, the building trades, city elected officials, they all see it for what it is,” Jordan said. “This is an attack on everybody. The president, his party and corporations from right-to-work states want to decimate unions and break the back of the middle class in New York and everywhere.”
Spectrum has presented its position in March and has come to mediation several times. The last time was in August. They didn’t budge.
Local 3 has organized dozens of rallies and picket lines. At a September rally both Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke in support of the strikers, demanding they bargain in good faith or risk the loss of their franchise in the city.
De Blasio told the crowd, “We do not accept a greedy corporation trying to undercut the most basic right of working people.”
Smythe said she appreciates the support but wants action now.
“I want the politicians to take away the franchise agreement. There are many pictures of out-of-state contractors. It is a blatant violation of the agreement,” Smythe said. “I want to be positive, but they are killing the last of the middle class in New York. The city council and the mayor have to step up.”
Easing the Burden
To try and ease some of the financial worries and eligibility for the union health plan, Local 3 started a work program, assigning striking members with Occupational Safety and Health Administration certification to four weeks as jobsite helpers.
Abraham Perez, a 10-year veteran of the cable company’s construction department, is completing his third week in the work program.
“It’s been a godsend. I have gone through a roller coaster of emotions and situations. You could write a book,” he said.
Three months ago his wife’s employer closed. She was only out of work for three weeks, but without his paycheck, it hurt. Then on Oct. 28, his car was totaled in a hit-an-run while it was parked in front of his house.
Before the Local 3 work program, Perez said he was constantly hustling for whatever work he could find through family, friends and word-of-mouth.
“I’ve put up five or six security camera systems, hung a half dozen TVs on the wall and four ceiling fans. Everything and anything I could get my hands on I did,” Perez said. “I got to the point, after four months that I went down to where the day laborers go. I got picked up a few times, cleaned some backyards. It took a lot of my pride away, but the way things are, I have no shame. I have to make money.”
Perez said the money he has earned and the generosity of his large family has kept his home safe, but he doesn’t know what comes next. He doesn’t know what he will do about the holidays, presents for his children or about his car.
“I worried about the payments before. Would I lose it? Now I don’t have to worry but it breaks my heart,’ he said. “I have no job. How am I going to get another car when my most recent pay stubs are from half a year ago and how am I going to get work if I don’t have a car?”
Perez too supported the strike call in March and, in spite of every challenge, he still does.
“If you take away everything they want to take away, it’s a whole different kind of job,” he said. “I am not rich. I’m middle class, but my head was up.”
Now he isn’t sure that will be possible no matter the outcome.
“That’s what I’m confused about. When Time Warner was Time Warner they made millions and we did well. Now they are paying for hotels and trucks with out-of-state plates for all these people. You telling me, they’re paying salary, food vouchers, trucks and hotels and this is about money? No. It isn’t,” Perez said.
Demanding Nothing but Fairness
Jordan said the relationship with Time Warner wasn’t perfect, but all sides did well.
“This workforce has prioritized deferred income. When given a choice they sacrificed raises in favor of stability, more security in retirement and better care for their families,” Jordan said. “It isn’t too much to ask a company making billions of dollars to treat the men and women who made this company with respect, sit down with them honestly and negotiate.”
Smythe said the proposal was especially galling after hearing that Charter Communications CEO Tom Rutledge took home $98 million in 2016 --the equivalent of $47,383 an hour-- making him the highest paid executive in the country.
Abraham Perez found work through the New York Local 3 job referral program, but only for four weeks. To support his family he’s done day labor and odd jobs but, he says, the only future is to continue the strike
“What did he do to earn his money? I don’t sit at a desk; I carry that 80-pound ladder, climb poles and go up on the roof. It is a slap in the face to tell me I am not good enough, that we don’t earn it. I have given everything,” Smythe said. “But I could live on what I made. I just want to have security in my old age and health insurance if I get hurt.”
Seventeen-year journeyman service technician Andrew Farquharson said all he wants is for the company to come back and negotiate fairly.
“A give and take, that’s all I ask,” he said.
Farquharson said he is one of the luckier ones. He got work through the Local 3 job referral program for four weeks and is on the waiting list for the Electrical Apprenticeship Program. His wife is still working. But, he said, he is living on borrowed time and borrowed money.
“I took a loan from my 401(k) and that has kept us above water, but my hand will be forced soon,” he said.
Farquharson’s wife is pregnant, due with their second child in January. She will be taking three months of maternity leave.
“That will be a disaster,” he said. “That will be the dilemma: will anyone hire me, invest in me, if we get a contract with Spectrum?”
That would be Spectrum’s loss he said. Farquharson, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, is the service technician that service technicians call when there is a problem they can’t solve.
“I’ve been here since the boxes were analog,” he said.
Like Smythe and Perez, he is a master of the unique infrastructure Spectrum bought from Time Warner.
It is, he said, aging, often difficult to access, especially in Brooklyn.
“Spectrum has to remember that there is a human element. People have been working for you blood, sweat and tears. Don’t forget about us,” he said. “Don’t forget that when people see me on the street, I am Spectrum, not Rutledge.”