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Union Rights Triumph Over Intimidation

Comcast Reinstates Organizer

By Cameron W. Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 6, 2004; Page B01

Stephen G. White, cable guy and union man, returns to work Thursday for a company that fired him six months ago.

His employer, Comcast of Montgomery County, will post a legally required notice informing its workforce that "we will not fire Stephen White because he engaged in activities on behalf of the Communications Workers of America . . . " and vowing that Comcast will not interfere with workers' rights to "form, join, or assist a union."

Comcast's settlement with Stephen White will give him back pay and seniority, but the company isn't admitting guilt. (Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

For White, 49, getting Comcast to state these words is a reason for celebration this Labor Day. He believes that Comcast fired him precisely because he attempted to organize a union and that a settlement allowing him to have his job back is vindication. It also gives him the opportunity to organize anew.

"I used the resources I had to make sure [Comcast managers] were held accountable," he said. "I was just fortunate to get some people to listen."

Comcast, the leading U.S. cable provider and an avowedly anti-union corporation, said it is reinstating White "because of the time and disruption that these types of legal situations cause," according to a statement issued by spokesman Mitchell Schmale, who added that Comcast "has never fired or disciplined an employee for participating in union organizing activities."

For the Communications Workers, the union representing White, his case is a lone star in a black night. Since 2002, when Comcast took over AT&T Broadband and inherited thousands of unionized workers, it has persuaded employees at workplace after workplace to abandon their unions. As a company training manual states, "Comcast does not feel union representation is in the best interest of its employees, customers, or shareholders."

This Labor Day finds ever fewer Americans in unions. In January, the Department of Labor reported that 12.9 percent of wage and salary workers were union members in 2003, down from 13.3 percent the year before. In the mid-1950s, about one-third of U.S. workers were unionized.

The Labor Department also reported that median weekly wages for union members were $760, compared with $599 for non-unionized workers. Even so, unions have been unable to reverse their decline as labor leaders criticize each other for not doing enough to organize new workers and as corporations increasingly adopt anti-union policies. Labor organizations have also had trouble adapting to a changing economy in which many workers are more mobile and find unions less relevant than earlier generations did.

White -- son of a union president, spouse of a union executive, longtime believer in collective bargaining -- is swimming against this tide. His story impressed Montgomery County Council member Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring), who has advocated on White's behalf. "Stephen is really the embodiment of employee mistreatment at the hands of Comcast, not just locally but nationally," Perez said.

White's case also caught the attention of John J. Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO labor federation, who brought White and two other workers onto the stage during his speech July 29 at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. "When workers try to join together in unions to lift themselves up, too often they are harassed, intimidated -- even fired -- by companies that ignore our laws and trample our American values," Sweeney said.

Comcast would not comment on the specifics of White's case, saying it does not discuss personnel matters publicly, and declined to make White's supervisors available for interviews.

Born and raised in the District, where his father served as president of the National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees, White enlisted in the Navy in 1979 and learned to operate communications systems aboard nuclear-powered submarines. After eight years, he found a job with a small cable operator in San Francisco.

That company was caught up in acquisitions as the cable industry boomed in the 1990s. By the end of the decade, White was working for AT&T Broadband in a workplace organized by the Communications Workers. He was making $21.50 an hour and served as a union official.

In 1999, he and his wife, a Communications Workers executive, decided to return to the Washington area, and White applied to what was then Cable TV Montgomery. The company hired him as a technician and paid for his move. The bad news was the wage: $14.50 an hour.

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