Comcast’s Other Sins

April 10th, 2014 by Phil Mattera

comcast centerComcast’s audacious proposal to acquire Time Warner Cable and thereby become a cable behemoth has been met with an appropriate degree of skepticism.

Both Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled a company executive at a hearing on the $45 billion acquisition.

There are good reasons to worry about the impact the merger would have on customers in an industry that already imposes inflated prices for what is often substandard service. As consumer advocate Gene Kimmelman put it in his prepared testimony for the hearing:

The merger will even more firmly entrench Comcast as the gatekeeper at the crossroads of Internet, television, and communications innovation. Because the merged company will have both the incentive and ability to thwart development of innovative Internet services that threaten Comcast’s excessively priced offerings across a much broader swath of the market than is true today, this merger must be rejected.

The impact on consumers is not the only cause for concern. The merger would give considerably more power to a company that has a long history of using its clout to mistreat workers and fight unions. Comcast has been forced to moderate its labor practices somewhat, but there is no evidence that it has changed its fundamental stance.

It’s significant that Comcast’s worst union-busting behavior emerged after its last giant cable acquisition — the purchase of AT&T Broadband in 2001. As Jonathan Tasini, then head of American Rights at Work, put it in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times:

Comcast promised to abide by union contracts and bargain in good faith. Instead, it embarked on a carefully orchestrated campaign to destroy the unions. In Detroit, Comcast chopped off more than half the unionized workforce, moving dozens of jobs to a nonunion facility. During organizing drives, Comcast has shelled out large sums to high-priced union-busting law firms and has harshly disciplined union supporters — firing some outright. Numerous charges have been filed against Comcast before the National Labor Relations Board.

This track record prompted the Communications Workers of America to oppose Comcast’s 2004 (ultimately unsuccessful) effort to take over Walt Disney. In a press release the CWA wrote: “Comcast has earned a designation by the AFL-CIO as one of the most aggressively anti-union companies in America, for its intimidation and threats against workers who want union representation. A Comcast vice president in Beaverton, Ore., stated publicly that Comcast is ‘at war to decertify the CWA’ and the company has followed that strategy since it bought AT&T Broadband in 2002.”

That strategy led to decertification votes in more than a dozen cities. An April 2004 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the unionized portion of Comcast’s workforce had fallen to less than five percent. The paper quoted CWA official George Kohl as saying: “We believe Comcast is out to crush unions. It has to do with control and paternalism run amok.”

Also in 2004, American Rights at Work (which later merged with Jobs with Justice) published a report entitled No Bargain: Comcast and the Future of Workers’ Rights in Telecommunications. After documenting how Comcast abused workers and fought unions, the report called on the company to change its ways.

Under pressure from CWA, Comcast apparently did change a bit. The union was able to negotiate decent contracts in places such as Pittsburgh and Detroit. Nonetheless, the union was critical of Comcast’s 2010 move to take over NBC Universal. So far, the CWA has taken a cautious public stance on the Time Warner Cable deal, saying it should be scrutinized but not explicitly opposing or endorsing it.

As an outsider, I am not familiar with the details of Comcast’s current dealings with the CWA or its other major union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Yet the company’s history on labor relations, especially in light of what happened after the AT&T Broadband acquisition, makes me worry about how it would behave after gaining control over an even larger portion of the cable industry.

It is telling that the Comcast official who represented the company in the recent Judiciary Committee hearing, Executive Vice President David L. Cohen, is the same person who led the anti-union campaign a decade ago. ”We take pride in providing a safe, enjoyable and productive work environment,” Cohen told the New York Times in 2005, adding that workers ”do not need to be represented by a union to gain all of the advantages.” Earlier, Cohen was quoted as dismissing critics of the company as “a few disgruntled employees that the union trots out.”

Many companies use the section on employees in their 10-K filings with the SEC to proclaim that they have good relations with their workers. Comcast does not bother to even address the issue in its 10-K. I suspect that Comcast is still at heart a unionbuster and worry that after swallowing Time Warner Cable it would feel freer to let that impulse come to the fore once again.

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