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Democracy at Comcast, Free Choices at Work

Few of us have the freedom to choose our cable service provider. With growing frequency in cities and towns all across the United States, it's Comcast or nothing at all. Serving 70 percent of cable and broadband subscribers in the top 20 markets, Comcast is the undisputed leader.

The limited freedom of choice experienced by cable subscribers apparently also extends to Comcast workers. Despite the company's public expressions of being "pro-employee" and not "anti-union," some Comcast workers recognize a huge gap between the company's rhetoric and its practices. They feel that their democratic choice to form a union often comes with high personal and professional risks designed to discourage their union participation. And when their rights are violated, U.S. labor law and the system that enforces it fail to protect them.

Stephen White knows first hand the difference unions make and how hard Comcast is willing to fight to keep the union out. The 17-year cable industry veteran had been a member of a union before he relocated to the Washington, D.c= area and took a position at non-union cable company acquired by Comcast. When Stephen's new co-workers expressed frustrations about workload increases without additional pay and unfair performance standards, he decided to help lead the union organizing effort. "By not having any representation, Comcast can really just do whatever they want to you. They can hire and fire at will. They can pay whatever they want."

Fired by Comcast in March 2004, Stephen believes his termination was directly related to his union activity. "I was fired hours after a manager overheard me speaking to an employee about our plans to get started on the organizing drive," he reports. "Everyone knew that I was a good worker and never had a problem in the past."

Unfair Labor Practice charges have been filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency charged with enforcing U.S. labor law. But how long will Stephen wait for justice? Typically, a decision from the NLRB can take months, and sometimes years. Workers found to be illegally fired only receive back pay minus money they have earned since their termination. And when employers illegally act in other ways to thwart union organizing campaigns and collective bargaining drives, they are only required to post notices stating they will not break the law in the future.

Our research shows why Stephen and others still choose to take the risk of forming a union. When comparing wages, benefits, and job security among cable workers and highly unionized telephone workers who perform very similar job functions, the advantages of forming a union are clear. According to recent monthly figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, full-time cable workers earn $13,000 less annually than their highly unionized telephone counterparts. And recent research shows also that among customer service and sales representatives in the telecommunications industry, union workers are paid higher median wages ($30,198 vs. $26,386), receive more generous benefits (measured in benefits as a percentage of median pay), and experience lower turnover rates as measured by quit rates (8.5 percent vs. 17.7 percent).

Additionally, telecommunications workers in unionized shops have advantages over their counterparts working in non-union environments. Among telecommunications technicians, union workplaces are more likely to rely on internal promotions to fill vacancies (56 percent to 46 percent). Union telecommunications workplaces also rely on far fewer temporary employees than non-union workplaces (5 percent vs. 13 percent).

Comcast employees across the country report that they must routinely perform more work without comparable growth in compensation, navigate unsafe working conditions, and endure the arbitrary application of unfair evaluation processes. When Comcast workers choose to address these concerns by forming unions and collectively negotiating the terms of their employment, their efforts often are met with terminations of union leaders like Stephen White, indefinite delays in contract negotiations that frustrate and demoralize workers, and the movement of jobs from union shops to non-union facilities.

Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts and his father, Comcast founder Ralph Roberts, took home a combined $20.3 million with an additional $34.2 million in exercised stock options in 2003. Clearly, the company can afford to respect workers' rights to form unions, negotiate fair contracts, and make good, middle class careers available to its workforce as other unionized telecommunications companies have done. As the market leader, it should not lower labor standards for the industry. At a time when many Americans are fearful and still experience the economic fallout of mass layoffs and the flight of middle class jobs to overseas labor markets, we cannot afford to lose ground in a homebound industry like telecommunications. Comcast must be held accountable to long-standing American values and labor standards.

Unfortunately, the state of workers' rights at Comcast is not unique. Companies across a range of industries are in a race to cut costs and boost their bottom lines. In his commentary for Business Week on the "Wal-Martization" of America, Aaron Berstein noted that good jobs enabling workers to move up the economic ladder are disappearing as a result of the corporate strategy to "control labor costs by hiring temps and part-timers, fighting unions, dismantling internal career ladders, and outsourcing to lower-paying contractors at home and abroad."

These practices are coupled with weak U.S. labor laws that are unequipped to effectively enforce the National Labor Relations Act, which requires employers to respect the choice of workers to form unions and to bargain in good faith. And when companies break the rules, the current system neither protects workers from employer reprisals nor adequately penalizes employers for their violations.

The Employee Free Choice Act — a bill in Congress quickly gaining momentum — will help fix the broken process through which workers form unions. In essence, the Employee Free Choice Act would accomplish three important things. First, it provides for certification of a union if the NLRB finds that a majority of workers has signed authorizations designating the union as their bargaining representative. Second, it provides mediation, if requested by either the employer or union, when a first contract has not been reached within 90 days. If mediation does not result in a contract at the end of 30 days, the dispute is referred to an arbitrator. And third, the Employee Free Choice Act strengthens penalties for employers who illegally interfere with workers' rights to organize and obtain first contracts.

No one can exercise free choice when they must weigh the risks of enduring intimidation, harassment or losing his job. If the Employee Free Choice Act was law today, Comcast employees and all workers would have a fair chance to weigh the merits, and choose or not choose to form a union.

Protecting the freedom of Comcast employees and all workers in America to form unions and negotiate contracts is critical for preserving good jobs, our democracy, and American values of fairness and justice. We must demand that this country preserve the freedoms that make our democracy function. Preserving the freedom of workers to choose unions is the right thing to do; and, most importantly, an inherently American and democratic thing to do.

Mary Beth Maxwell is the executive director of American Rights at Work, a new nonprofit, workers' rights advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. To download a copy of American Rights at Work's recent report on Comcast, No Bargain, or to learn more about the Employee Free Choice Act, please visit the American Rights at Work Web site.

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