As it nears its 10th month, Local 3 IBEW’s strike against cable giant Spectrum has become a test of worker endurance — and union loyalty. Roughly 1,800 union cable techs hit the picket lines on March 28, when prolonged contract talks fell apart, forcing a walkout. The strike has now outlasted the state unemployment benefits of many members. Those who can’t get by on the $350 a week paid out by the Local 3 strike fund have been faced with a gut-wrenching choice: They can return to work, but that will mean leaving their union.
The Spectrum cable company — a subsidiary of Charter Communications — says it does not force any returning workers to quit Local 3 before it will consider them for re-employment. But many know that they can be hit with a fine from Local 3 for crossing a picket line — so they voluntarily opt out of the union before re-signing with Spectrum. Local 3 business manager Chris Erikson said there have been some union members who did bail on the strike because of their own private economic pressures — but it’s a small minority.
“These workers know what’s going on here. They know that the value of what they are being told they have to give up by Spectrum is far greater than what the company is offering in return,” Erikson said. “And they’re not going to help the company starve Local 3 into submission.” Far from demoralizing Local 3, the Spectrum’s hardline approach to negotiating has helped keep more strikers on the picket line, according to Erikson. “Being part of a union means you as a worker have a voice in the workplace — our members know that, and it’s not something they’re willing to give up,” he told the Daily News on Friday.
That’s not to say that Local 3 hasn’t made some significant moves in an effort to end the painful strike — which has drained the union of $5 million and counting, and brought economic chaos to members’ lives. Five days before Christmas, Erikson said, he and a federal mediator sat down with Spectrum representatives. He was prepared to give the cable company a major concession — not all that it wanted to extract from the workforce, but a significant portion, Erikson said. “The company, from the beginning, said it wants us to give up our union defined benefit pension fund and our union health care plan,” he said. “They want us to pay out of pocket for the corporate health plan and into a 401(k) with a 6% match. That’s what drove us out into the streets.”