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."
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.
When he joined the company that October, its employees were represented by the Communications Workers and unhappy about what White called a lack of support and effective representation. They were preparing to vote to decertify the union.
White spent two weeks training with an experienced technician, who railed against the Communications Workers: how little the union did, how much the dues were, how lousy the union was. White bit his tongue for most of that time but then told his colleague about his positive experience in California. White voted to keep the union, but the majority of the workers voted the other way. The company raised wages, in White's case to $18.50 a hour.
The next year, Comcast acquired Cable TV Montgomery and soon offered digital cable and cable Internet access.
"We were doing more jobs and working longer hours," White said, "but we weren't getting compensated for extra work or the time." He was still earning less than what he'd made in California.
In August 2002, coming off a six-month disability leave and three months of light duty because of a basketball injury, White had a dispute with a manager who asserted that White had abused his leave privileges. White refused to sign the "write-up," or warning, and insisted that the manager was penalizing him in violation of Comcast's policies.
White said his record was clean until that incident. He was enough of a corporate team player to help Comcast of Montgomery win a company-wide quiz competition for technicians.
Still, the write-up incensed him. "They don't even follow their own policies," he recalled thinking at the time. "We've got to do something about this."
In late 2002, White attended a bachelor party for a fellow Comcast technician. "After the stripper left," he said, "we were just talking about difficulties on the job." Those difficulties included a sense that wages were not rising in keeping with Comcast's expansion, disillusionment with a company program intended to promote career advancement and worries about safety hazards at work.
The 20 or so employees at the party decided to try to bring back the Communications Workers.
With help from the union, they began organizing, and Comcast began pushing back. The Comcast training manual -- which spokesman Schmale said was not used in Montgomery -- tells company managers to be aware of some organizing "early warning signs," such as, "Employees not normally seen together are seen gathering. Increased curiosity and questions about benefits and policies."
The manual advises Comcast managers not to interrogate workers about union activities, but White said that a personnel manager asked him to lunch in early 2003 and said he had heard that White and others were talking about unionizing. White acknowledged rumors about a union drive; the manager said he'd heard that White was the leader.
The manager asked what it would take to stop the organizing effort, but White said that because a group of workers was involved, he would have to consult with them. White later called the manager, saying that he and others had decided to continue their efforts. "He said something to the effect of, 'Let the battle begin,' " White said.
Managers and supervisors continued inviting workers to lunch and arguing against unionizing at mandatory meetings. In May, White and his pro-union colleagues, about 65 percent of the 240 workers in their bargaining unit, submitted petitions in support of a union to the National Labor Relations Board, which announced it would hold an election at Comcast of Montgomery on June 11, 2003.
But early that month, White and others decided to call off the election, worried that they were losing support. The company's campaign, he concedes, was effective. The Comcast manual warns against threatening workers during a union organizing drive, but White said that Comcast supervisors were telling technicians they would not get a contract and might lose their benefits if the union came in. "They scared people," he said.
Later that year, Comcast instituted a new disciplinary procedure, and White said supervisors distorted or made up issues regarding his work performance that resulted in additional warnings and his termination March 1 of this year. At the time, he was making $21.67 an hour.
He immediately filed a complaint with the labor board, which consolidated his case with those of other Comcast workers fired in Prince George's County. Late last month, the company appeared to be preparing to contest White's case, sending subpoenas to council members Perez and George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), but on Aug. 26, White heard the company had offered to settle.
As Comcast spokesman Schmale notes, the settlement indicates that Comcast admits no violation of federal labor law. But it does offer White back pay and seniority. Comcast also agreed to clear his file of records relating to his firing. "There's not a hairsbreadth of difference between what the board would have ordered" if the case had gone to trial and White had won, "and this settlement," said Stewart Acuff, AFL-CIO organizing director.
Officials of the Communications Workers said it is the first time Comcast has agreed to reinstate a worker under similar circumstances. It and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers are engaged in what they say will be a five-year effort to organize Comcast.
The corporation, in its training manual, lists 29 "successful decertifications." The same page of the manual asks: "Could so many be wrong?" The company says that fewer than 1,700 of its 68,000 employees are unionized, down from 3,500 in November 2002.
The other day, as White sat in the living room of his Silver Spring house, his cell phone rang. It was a Comcast manager, calling to arrange White's return. He got off the phone fast. "I'm still," said White, pausing, "I don't want to say angry, but a little emotional about the whole ordeal."