Inside Cablevision’s War With Big Labor
Today, James Dolan’s cable giant finally answers allegations it strong-armed employees in a bruising, three-year tangle with the communication workers’ union.
James L. Dolan is not a man to dodge a fight. When the billionaire owner of the New York Knicks and Rangers received an emotional email from a lifelong fan begging him to sell his hapless basketball team, for example, Dolan told 72-year-old Irving Bierman that he was a “hateful mess” and an “alcoholic maybe.”
But tiffs like these are nothing compared to the bruising three-year war of attrition that Dolan and Cablevision, the multibillion-dollar cable company he runs, have fought with the Communications Workers of America (CWA) union that some employees voted to join in 2012. Allegations of misconduct have been hurled at both sides.
A watershed moment arrived after one of those employees—a union activist—likened Cablevision to a “slave ship” at a company meeting last year and he was fired. When he subsequently called Dolan a racist, he was sued for defamation.
When another Cablevision shop in Brooklyn threatened to go union, Dolan had forceful words for his workers: “Why would I train and invest in our employees when I have to relate to the union and not to employees?”
In recent months, regional offices of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency that supervises union elections and investigates unfair labor practices, has accused Dolan and Cablevision of violating federal labor law by allegedly threatening employees, bargaining in bad faith, unfairly firing employees, and raising the salaries only of non-union workers.
“I found sufficient evidence that there were threats made directly and in speeches by Mr. Dolan as well as unlawful discharges of employees and a failure to bargain in good faith,” said James Paulsen, the NLRB regional director in Brooklyn who has issued multiple complaints against the company.
In a statement, a Cablevision spokesman responded: “This is a ridiculous and false attack which is not worthy of either a response or any attention from readers.”
A contract between CWA was finally signed, only hours before tipoff at the February 13 NBA All-Star Game, hosted at Dolan’s Madison Square Garden.
But the scars from the long, expensive fight remain raw. Cablevision employees who were fired and then reinstated are still complaining about issues of back pay, to which the court says they are entitled. On June 23, after months of delays, the company must appear before Administrative Judge Raymond P. Green to answer a complaint received and investigated by the NLRB regional office. Among the unresolved issues is the lawsuit against the fired employee.
The CWA is also under fire for some of its alleged strongarming tactics before the two sides struck a deal. According to a June 12 NLRB letter, the union may face a separate probe into pro-union employees threatening to sue Cablevision workers who didn’t want to join up with the CWA.
The battle between Cablevision and the union has been long and acrimonious, with both sides accusing each other of bad faith and misrepresentation. To get to the bottom of it, The Daily Beast interviewed Cablevision executives, company employees both current and fired, and NLRB officials. Court documents, including an NLRB 291-page critical judgment against the company, unpublished emails, and internal company memos were also reviewed. The investigation yields two distinct possibilities: either Dolan has actively, aggressively worked to keep unions out of Cablevision—or he’s one of the most misunderstood CEOs in the history of labor-management relations.
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Dolan and Cablevision are no strangers to union negotiations. The Knicks, Rangers, and employees at Madison Square Garden have long enjoyed union representation (by more than 27 unions). Employees at Newsday, the company’s Long Island newspaper it purchased back in 2008, have been represented by two unions, including the CWA, for almost 40 years.
All of those companies were unionized before Dolan inherited or purchased them. But Cablevision, the fifth-largest cable company in the nation with some 15,000 employees spread across four states, had been union-free ever since it was founded in 1973 by Charles Dolan, James Dolan’s father.
That changed on January 26, 2012, when the 262 workers in Cablevision’s Brooklyn office voted to join the CWA.
One week later, a conciliatory James Dolan gave a televised speech to Cablevision’s rank and file. In it, he asked workers not to sign up with the union. “So if you happen to be in a position where you get approached about signing a card to bring a union vote to another one of our facilities, I'm asking you not to sign it—yet,” he said, according to a transcript of the speech.
The Brooklyn office workers signed their union cards anyway. And so began the protracted three-year struggle between the CWA and Cablevision.
Federal complaints were filed and followed by an original judgment that came down to reveal a timeline of how both sides carried on before a deal was reached.
Administrative Law Judge Steven Fish—a member of a cadre of NLRB judges who can hear cases, serve as de facto prosecutors, and write decisions—filed a massive document on the Cablevision-CWA scrum. That file contains a cache of emails, minutes from closed-door meetings, and testimony, much of which attacked Dolan as the alleged architect of a campaign aimed at crushing the union movement in his company.
In the latest filings—from February 9, just days before the contract was signed—the NLRB alleged that Dolan and a dozen other Cablevision executives potentially violated multiple laws.
But even if the NLRB’s five-panel board—its high court, if you will—ultimately sides with the union, the NLRB may be hamstrung by design in forcing a Cablevision fix. “If you’re Cablevision and you’ve been found to have violated the [NLRB] Act and you look around the table and say, ‘Now what?’ The ‘now what’ is this: the NLRB has no direct enforcement power. They have no jury trials. They have no possibility of punitive damages,” said David Gregory, executive director of the Center for Labor and Employment Law at St. John’s University.
If Dolan and Cablevision refuse to comply with the NLRB’s rulings, the case then goes to the U.S. Court of Appeals’ Second Circuit. If the court sides with the NLRB, the Board can seek contempt fines against Dolan and Cablevision should they continue to commit what are deemed to be labor violations.
Gregory says resolving the dispute could potentially take up to a decade.
Cablevision executives “can say confidently: ‘I can either defy the NLRB and operate for another year, maybe five or 10 years, and the government can’t really lay a glove on me,’” Gregory added.
In an argument submitted to the NLRB last fall, the company insisted that it is blameless: Cablevision executives met for 37 “full-day bargaining sessions” and made three “comprehensive” wage proposals to the CWA. Denying accusations of “intransigence,” the company filing portrays the union’s efforts as “nothing short of cynical” and so unyielding that union negotiators even quit a key meeting over nothing more than a “conference call during a snowstorm.”
At times, Judge Fish has sided with Cablevision, dismissing some of the NLRB’s accusations. For example, he found the company gave the union plenty of “opportunity to bargain” and in his decision concluded “the evidence indicates that [Cablevision] engaged in hard but lawful bargaining to achieve a contract that it considers desirable.”
It’s not the only time in recent years that the NLRB has courted controversy. For instance, in 2011 the agency accused the aircraft corporation Boeing of acting illegally by hatching plans to relocate its 787 Dreamliner plant from Washington state to South Carolina—a charge the NLRB later retracted.
Nonetheless, the original question of whether or not Dolan and Cablevision bargained in bad faith two years ago remains on appeal by the CWA. In an amendment document from March 27, 2015, the NLRB claims that Cablevision “unilaterally changed employee terms and conditions of employment without affording the Union an opportunity to bargain… and threatened [sic] employees with continued loss of a wage increase.”
A flashpoint in the Cablevision-CWA war came on Sept. 9, 2014, when Dolan made a rare visit to his Brooklyn shop.
He kicked off the 90-minute town hall-style speech in Canarsie by blaming the union for getting in the way of their pay increases, equipment upgrades, and services. “[The union] is asking for a lot more of those things, and they say, oh, and by the way, we also would like to get paid the same… well, the things that they are asking for cost money and they are essentially asking for a better deal than what everybody else at the company has,” he said.
He later asked: “Why should you have a better deal than the guys in the Bronx?”
If workers in the Bronx hear about Brooklyn’s better treatment, Dolan continued, “they are going to say, ‘Why should they get more money because they have a union? Because they muscled you?’”
But Dolan cautioned that there was no quid pro quo. “If I sit here and I tell you, right, you can do this [say no to the union] in order to make money, I will be—your union will have the papers filed in the Labor Board faster than I can get out of Brooklyn,” he said.
Then Dolan went on to plead for the workers there to reconsider their union aspirations. “I understand you don’t trust the company, right, et cetera, and I might ask you, by the way, you who does not trust anything that the company does, why do you work here? I mean, look, this isn’t the only job in the world,” he said. “And there is—you know, there is a company called Verizon that has a union that operates in the same place we do.”
The NLRB considered the Verizon alternative and constant pay-raise mentions as a tool that “threatened continued loss of a pay increase if the workers voted for the Union and promised a pay increase if they voted against the Union, among other things.”
Cablevision later sought to clarify CEO Dolan’s comments, saying that Dolan had told employees without a “hint of antagonism... that they had a right to seek alternative employment.”
Moreover, the reasonable and calm demeanor Dolan carried that day in the face of Brooklyn workers “belies any possible claim that employees were threatened or intimidated” by anything Dolan said, according to the company. And when the CEO opened the floor to employees, they decided to “speak their minds without any compunction whatsoever.”
According to Cablevision, it was Dolan, not the workers, who suffered a barrage of “some forcefully” “hard” and “confrontational” questions after his speech. This is backed up by a transcript of the event, obtained by The Daily Beast. Many times, Dolan has to try to cut through a barrage of antagonism and asks the workers in Brooklyn to “please be courteous” and warned he “won’t stay, right, if you start to have a melee here.”
Decorum was almost ditched after one worker blamed the boss for the rationing of wages and cited big salaries doled out to unionized New York Knicks basketball players. “Look at how much money you give to these basketball players,” a worker named Otis Haynes said. “We are suffering here.”
Dolan managed to get the crowd to calm down for a moment by explaining Cablevision “owes the banks $9 billion” to reinforce how hard it is to turn a profit. Then he touched on his NBA franchise. “Now the basketball players, right, are skilled and talented individuals... I mean, look, if you are in the NBA, it’s because you are like the cream of the crop in terms of people who can play basketball,” he said, before giving his Brooklyn workforce some love. “Now you are skilled, too. You are not basketball players. Neither am I. And there is value to what you have learned and there is value to what you do.”
To make more coin, Cablevision workers in Brooklyn were told to up their skills and “make a bigger contribution and you get paid more,” Dolan added.
He also apologized.
Dolan said he realized that leaving some people in leadership roles who were “motivated by the bottom line” cost the company dearly in morale. “I am sorry that I did some things that—that I didn’t think at the time that were wrong or that they hurt the company because I trusted the people underneath me...my mistake was in my judgement,” he said.
But Cablevision employee Rey Meyers told The Daily Beast that he believes Dolan came to Brooklyn intent on disbanding the union.
When Dolan arrived, Meyers recalled, the CEO was met with cheers. Then, Meyers believes Dolan started taking shots at the union. And he said hecklers booed. “To me, [Dolan] was saying that the people of Brooklyn doesn’t want a union and he was going to prove it,” said Meyers, who is still employed by Cablevision installing and repairing cable boxes.
Indeed, Dolan told his cable troops in Canarsie that he made the trip because he believed “that the majority of folks here, right, wanted, you know, wanted a direct relationship with the company and that the union was standing in the way.”
But Dolan tempered this later by saying he would still work with the Brooklyn shop if they decided to unionize or not. “I have shown the leadership,” he said. “The rest of the company has seen it. Go ask them.”
“You decide what you want,” Dolan continued. “Decide one way or another. There will be no retribution.”
“It would be pretty ballsy of me to stand up here and tell you that and then have something else going on,” Dolan added. “You know, that’s not me.”***On September 10, 2014, a day after Dolan’s Brooklyn visit, Cablevision conducted a poll at its Brooklyn offices under the oversight of The Honest Ballot Association, a firm that since 1909 has certified lotteries and proctored school board as well as labor union contests. Dolan boasted the company’s rep: “This company has been in business since 1900-something,” he said. “Believe me, if they didn’t do this that way, they wouldn’t be in business. They aren’t going to risk their reputation, right, in order to try and make a side deal with Cablevision.”
The company says the poll was intended to determine if the workers still wanted to keep the CWA as their collective-bargaining rep. But according to NLRB complaint the poll “bypassed the Union and dealt directly with its employees” by making promises to workers “if employees voted to get rid of the Union.”
According to Cablevision’s argument, the poll was backed by Dolan’s verbal assurances that it would be “confidential and voluntary” and “free from reprisal.” An HR colleague told workers that the poll would be confidential, with security cameras covered up and no staff permitted to meddle with how the worker voted.
When the votes were tallied, Cablevision emerged victorious, winning 129-115.
The company insists the poll was confidential, and that workers used “electronic secret ballots.” Security cameras “were covered during the polling.” And to this day, “no such reprisals have occurred (or even alleged).” The Daily Beast has independently obtained an Honest Ballot Association letter dated Sept. 11, 2014, stating that the polling at three Brooklyn-based Cablevision locations was “anonymous, fair, and accurate and was conducted in accordance with best practices.”
But Meyers, for one, believes the poll was anything but anonymous or confidential. “We were asked, ‘Do you want the union or not?’ and the whole time we’re being watched [to see] if we were for it or against it.”
NLRB charges filed on Nov. 6, 2014, back Meyers’s claim that Cablevision asked workers to ID themselves. Moreover, according to the NLRB, Cablevision “surveilled employees’ Union activities by watching employees as they voted in the poll.”
The NLRB also accused Cablevision of using the poll as a way of “coercing employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed” in the National Labor Relations Act. The administrative judge backed up those claims.
This was not the first time Dolan allegedly tried to influence a union vote.
On June 26, 2012, six months after Brooklyn Cablevision workers had certified CWA as their union representative and just after workers in the Bronx signed authorization cards expressing union ambitions—Dolan paid a visit to Cablevision’s Bronx offices. It was two days before workers there would vote whether or not to join the CWA. “There was interest all around the Cablevision footprint on Long Island and in New Jersey too,” one insider, who worked closely with helping Brooklyn become unionized, told The Daily Beast.
Dolan told the Bronx employees that to compete with Verizon, its biggest regional competitor, Cablevision needed to make improvements in technology and equipment. These upgrades, he said, would be easier to implement in a nonunion shop. “We will change with or without the union; we do not want to leave you behind,” Dolan said, according to evidence pulled from the administrative judgment.
Dolan then fielded questions.
“Are you really going to leave Brooklyn behind?” one worker asked.
“Yes,” Dolan said. “I'm not going to let the union make unreasonable demands.”
Another stood up and asked, “Why not bargain in good faith with the union? It sounds like a threat.”
Dolan responded, “It’s not a threat, it’s a reality. The company needs to change, and the union is not conducive to change.”
Two days later, Bronx Cablevision employees voted down the union by a tally of 121-43.
But before the vote, Dolan had approved $2- to $9-an-hour pay increases everywhere in the company—except in Brooklyn’s unionized shops. Bronx Cablevision employees told The Daily Beast that was one of the factors that persuaded them not to join the union.
That was the idea behind the raise, as Cablevision Vice President Robert Sullivan wrote in a March 28, 2012, email to Dolan. In the note, Sullivan told the CEO that the company needed to raise salaries and commissions everywhere but in Brooklyn to “deliver the final blow” to the CWA union’s growing influence.
“I need to deliver on the good will I have generated that has resulted in the evaporation of union support as shown in the recap of the union meeting Monday,” Sullivan wrote.
“Go for it!” Dolan wrote back that same day.
On January 30, 2013, one year into the three-year battle to ratify a union contract, Rey Meyers led a group of Brooklyn Cablevision workers in a sit-in-style protest who tried to force management to explain in a face-to-face meeting why negotiations were stalling. “I’m the one that was part of starting it,” Meyers told The Daily Beast.
Cablevision managers convinced most of the 100 protesting workers to return to their posts. The 22 employees who refused to leave were then ushered off Cablevision’s Brooklyn premises by NYPD cops, according to Meyers.
“They tell us, ‘You’ve been permanently replaced. Please leave your IDs, phone, and keys to your truck. You no longer work for the company,’” Meyers said.
Judge Fish concluded that Cablevision’s firing of the 22 workers was in direct violation of the NLRB Act, and that any workers who had been fired and then reinstated must be compensated “for any loss of pay or other benefits caused by the discrimination against the employees.”
Three months later, Meyers and the others who had been fired were reinstated—but without back pay, he says. “We were supposed to get back our money,” Meyers said, which he claims in his case amounted to around $9,000.
So far, employees told The Daily Beast, the back pay hasn’t been remitted.
As Cablevision plays defense against the CWA and NLRB, the CEO and company have also gone on offense. After one of his employees characterized Cablevision as a “slave ship” in a company meeting and later accused Dolan of being a “racist,” Dolan sued the man for defamation.
Jerome Thompson, 44, worked for Cablevision for 11 years as a technician, and he was an active member of the union-organizing effort in the Brooklyn office. At an August 6, 2014, company forum with Cablevision brass, Thompson made the slave ship comparison. Two weeks later he was fired, on Aug. 20, 2014, Thompson said.
“They tell me, ‘We decided to terminate you,’ and said it was because of ‘disruptive behavior,’” Thompson told The Daily Beast.
One month later, on September 23, Thompson appeared outside of Cablevision’s Brooklyn office yelling, “Jim Dolan is a racist.”
A day later, the company filed a defamation suit against the CWA and Thompson, accusing him of allegedly “spreading malicious falsehoods.”
The NLRB highlighted Thompson’s case in papers filed on February 9, 2015, as evidence of what the Board called “unfair labor practices.”
Most critical is that Thompson’s firing was meant “to discourage employees from engaging in these [union] activities,” according to the NLRB’s complaint.
But Thompson wasn’t exactly a model employee, the Cablevision suit says.
Cablevision contends that Thompson had “a long history of misconduct that no employer could expect to tolerate.” That included arriving disheveled and tardy, playing loud music, and crashing a company truck twice and once fleeing the scene. He is also accused of and cited for talking excessively on his company-issued cellphone without permission.
Thompson counters by claiming that he had perfect attendance, the fender benders were both mischaracterized, and he was permitted to use the company’s cellphone plan, which had unlimited minutes.
Thompson believes Dolan made it personal after the “slave ship” comment, which he said he doesn’t regret making.
“I stand 1,000 percent by what I said,” Thompson said. His termination report, Thompson said, focused on “those statements I made about slave ship.”
But despite his history with Cablevision, Thompson still hopes to get rehired. “I definitely want my job back,” he said.
It’s unlikely. Beyond unlikely. But this long, strange war between Cablevision and the communications workers has been full of unusual twists.