New York, NY – “They turned us into modern day slaves.”
That’s how striking Spectrum worker Tatiana Cabezas, 33, describes her experience working for Charter Communications — the multibillion dollar corporation that gobbled up Time-Warner Cable two years ago.
Cabezas had ten years on the job and was working as an advanced technician earning $38.05-an-hour when she and about 1,800 other IBEW Local 3 members went on strike last March after the new bosses tried to scrap union health and pension plans.
But the heat-seeking missiles aimed at employees’ security, was only one part of the savage salvo Charter Communications — now the second-largest cable provider in the nation — had in store for its unionized workforce.
Longtime workers including Cabezas — a highly-trained journeyman tech with as many as eight different certifications to her credit — say that the Connecticut-based corporation consistently dumped on workers, and blamed them for Charter’s ongoing failure to deliver promised internet speeds to customers in New York.
“They used to blame us for repeat trouble calls, or they would blame us for faulty equipment,” Cabezas says. “But they knew that their system was flawed. When I go into customers’ homes and tell them I understand you’re frustrated because you’re not getting the internet speed that you want wirelessly —unfortunately, when you’re hearing their advertisements say you can get up to 102 megabytes, it’s not guaranteed. And that’s the diffence. But they’re not content because they think I’m not doing my job properly — until the next technician comes in and explains the exact same thing.”
Last year, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sued Charter Communications for not only cheating customers who bought the company line about faster internet speeds, but also misleading the Public Service Commission when it promised to upgrade cable and Internet service as a condition of obtaining approval for the Time Warner Cable purchase.
Charter tried hard to get the lawsuit dismissed. This past week, however, the Supreme Court of New York State rejected Charter’s bid to kill the lawsuit. Schneiderman called the high court’s decision a “major victory for New York Consumers.”
Charter has some 2.5 million Spectrum subscribers across the Empire State, and in some areas Upstate, it’s the only game in town.
“This decision ensures that our office can continue to hold Charter-Spectrum to account for its failure to deliver the reliable internet speeds it promised consumers,” Schneiderman said in a statement. “The allegations in our lawsuit confirm what millions of New Yorkers have long suspected — Charter-Spectrum has been ripping you off, promising internet speeds it simply could not deliver.”
Charter contends that it is delivering as advertised, and has “raised the minimum broadband speeds that all our New York customers receive, at the same price.”
“Importantly, the court made no ruling on the allegations about historic Time Warner Cable practices, and we will continue to contest these claims vigorously as the case progresses,” the company said in a statement. “We at Spectrum look forward to many years of providing New Yorkers best-in-class speeds at highly competitive prices.”
According to Cabezas, the contempt Spectrum managers had for union workers ahead of the strike could barely be contained; at one point calling them “undereducated and overpaid.”
“They didn’t give [my position] to me — I worked hard for it,” a defiant Cabezas says. “I studied everything that they put in front of me in order to get to the position I’m at, and making the money that I make. It was never handed to me. I worked my ass off in order to obtain what I had. I studied the way I needed to study so I could provide for my family.”
Eleven months into the strike, Cabezas finds herself forced to live back home with her father in Ecuador earning a few dollars here and there providing Spanish to English translations for neighbors and living off her credit cards.
Her marriage ended in September — six months into the strike. She hasn’t seen her 6-year-old son or 12-year-old daughter since then. Fending off panic attacks and insomnia are now part of daily life.
Cabezas’ financial and emotional struggle, however, are sadly emblematic of what many strikers are experiencing.
“I’m not saying that anyone’s sacrifice or turmoil during this time is less important than mine — I actually put myself at the very bottom,” Cabezas says. “I don’t have a mortgage or school tuition [to pay] like a lot my co-workers do.”
Journeyman Mike Auerbach, 55, put 37 years into the cable company before Charter’s corporate bosses decided to bust him down to a service position. The Whitestone farther of one says he was “a little bit too union for them.”
“I was originally a plant tech; never had any issue,” Auerbach says. “Then they said, we’re backed on service calls; we need you to do service for a little while. ”
When Auerbach asked when he could return to his previous position — a post the IBEW Local 3 strike captain says he also trained extensively to attain — Charter Communications bosses told him he would have to reapply and then take an assessment test.
“Then they said, you failed the assessment test. But, meanwhile, I trained the guy that replaced me,” Auerbach says.
The sense of betrayal that Auerbach and fellow strikers now feel is profound.
“I feel like [Charter] has no history here in New York,” he says. “I’ve been a dedicated employee for 37 years. I worked in city housing during the crack academic; I was there during all the hurricanes; I was there after 9/11; I was there after Superstorm Sandy. To be treated like this is really a disgrace. And to replace us with non-union people and new hires…the customer is not getting all the experience the [union] members have.”
Striking workers have longed maintained that Charter/Spectrum’s practice of hiring out-of-state workers both violates the franchise agreement the company has with the city and puts New York customers at risk.
Charter refuses to reveal just how many out-of-state workers the company is employing in New York, or exactly what kind of screening process those replacement hires might have undergone.
When asked, Charter spokesperson John Bonomo restated the company’s position that the “use of a stringent vetting process and use of quality contractors is paramount so that we may best serve our customers.”
Customers taking to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to complain about shoddy service and long outages over the course of the 11-month strike, might disagree.
“People are constantly complaining because the real workers — the ones that put their heart and soul into the company — are out of work,” Cabezas says. “They’re hiring these [out-of-state] people and they don’t train them properly.”
The 10-year veteran insists that no two jobs in this town are the same — and that there is no substitute for the practical real world experience journeymen attain over time.
“You cannot train for what’s out there in the field in the classroom — it’s impossible,” Cabezas says. “You only start learning in the field. Every house is different — not one job is the same as the other. [Replacement workers] aren’t properly trained — they’re not even being checked out.”