In late July, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s appointees on the New York Public Service Commission (PSC) voted to ban Charter Communications, the nation’s second-largest cable company, from the state. The PSC ordered Charter to develop a plan to leave the state and transfer its network to another owner within sixty days, though given the company’s plans to sue to reverse the ruling, it will likely remain in the state beyond that.
Charter, which does business under the brand Spectrum in New York, has an annual net income of nearly $10 billion and total assets of $146.6 billion, earning a place on the Fortune 100 list of largest US companies. Like many cable and telecommunications companies, Charter enjoys a monopoly or near-monopoly in many of the markets where it operates.
What leads a business-friendly Democrat like Cuomo to attack one of the country’s largest corporations? In part, it has to do with the fact that about 1,800 Charter workers represented by IBEW Local 3 have been on strike against the company for over a year. And while Cuomo is no leftist and definitely no friend of the working class, he has begun to pay lip service to progressive causes as a result of facing a far more progressive challenger, Cynthia Nixon, in his reelection bid.
Cuomo’s real motives are clear enough. But this episode provides lessons for present and future leftist officeholders. We should watch it closely.
Clash of the Titans
In its ruling, the PSC alleges that Charter failed to make sufficient progress in extending its internet service to 145,000 new residences in rural parts of the state — a condition for the commission’s approval of the merger with Time Warner that enabled the company to do business in New York. Charter disputes the PSC’s accounting, claiming it has already extended coverage to eighty-six thousand new residences.
Regardless of the numbers, it’s highly unusual for a telecom company to face such drastic action for failing to meet the obligations in the operating agreement it signs with a state or local government. For example, New York City signed a deal with Verizon in 2008 to make fiber optic internet available to every home in the city. City officials did not get serious about enforcing this provision until nine years later, and Verizon has still not faced any consequences for failing to meet its end of the agreement.
In fact, cities across the country regularly bring legal action against cable and internet companies. But even when cities receive damages, the judgments almost never seriously threaten the companies’ profits. Losing the right to operate in the third-largest state in the country, on the other hand, would seriously affect Charter’s bottom line.
Many people, including Charter, believe Cuomo’s real motivation for the attack is to benefit the 1,800 members of IBEW Local 3 who have been on strike against the company since March 2017.
In a September 2017 rally with Local 3 workers, Cuomo said,
I am going to hold [Charter] to every letter and the spirit of [the agreement allowing it to operate in the state], and if they don’t get their act together and fulfill that agreement, they’re going to be out of the State of New York.
I want Charter to understand this. This is not a one day affair. This is not the end. Today is the beginning. And what’s happening here today is the labor movement coming together in a way they haven’t come together in decades . . . If we stand together as one and rededicate ourselves to the proposition that union brothers and union sisters stand together in solidarity, that if you attack one of us you attack all of us, there is no beating us.
That’s what the Local 3 fight is all about: it’s for the working men and women in this state and this is a fight that we will not lose, that we cannot lose. I will be with you every step of the way.
Strong stuff, but it had little effect on the strike. Local 3 workers remain on strike today, but they have almost completely demobilized. They have not held major rallies or picket lines in months, and Charter does not appear to be significantly impacted by the strike. If Cuomo’s goal is to use the PSC to help settle a good contract for Local 3 members, he’s about a year too late.
This tactic is in keeping with Cuomo’s strategy of keeping his allies weak (and thus dependent on him), as well as his preference for wheeling and dealing among elites rather than engaging meaningfully with average New Yorkers.
And while the historically anti-union governor is unenthusiastic about granting New Yorkers more rights at work, he has won the endorsement of almost every major union in the state. Cuomo has delivered a few real, though insufficient, benefits to some sections of organized labor. But while he has kept high-level union officials on his side after initial confrontations at the beginning of his first term in office, he has also consistently sought to suppress state workers’ wages and benefits, demanding givebacks on pensions and agreeing to minimal raises.
The split of the formerly union-backed New York Working Families Party over whether to endorse Cuomo or his challenger Cynthia Nixon suggests another interpretation of the PSC’s ruling. Namely, it raises the possibility that Cuomo is sending a message to high-level union officials: the governor can be your powerful friend — or your powerful enemy.
Lessons for the Left
Bernie Sanders’s 2016 challenge has given rise to a wave of leftist electoral campaigns. Recent victories include challengers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Summer Lee, khalid kamau, and Lee Carter; while ongoing campaigns by Jovanka Beckles, Julia Salazar, Kristin Seale, and Marc Elrich have kept the momentum going. In this context, the Left faces serious questions of how to govern in an economy and a state dominated by large corporate interests.
While the results of the New York-Charter conflict remain to be seen — and the legal battle could take years — we can still ask what lessons present and future leftist officeholders can draw from this episode.
First, like the workplace, the state is a site of class struggle. Even when the interests of capital are dominant at a given moment, politicians and, to some extent, bureaucrats, have the potential to wage class struggle (or, as is more often the case, are forced to wage class struggle) within the state. They can do this by enacting policies that will make working-class organizing easier and more impactful — or by using the powers of the state to attack corporations engaged in labor battles with their workers.
Second, be bold. Cuomo’s motives are likely more about sending a message to union officials than concretely helping workers. And it is unclear if he’d feel the need to take such drastic action were he not facing a serious electoral challenge from his left. But the threat to entirely remove Charter from one of its largest markets goes well beyond the usual bounds of liberal governance.
In its ruling, the PSC gives itself permission to extend the sixty-day deadline indefinitely, presumably to conduct negotiations with the company towards a settlement short of expulsion. Still, the aggressiveness of the state’s demand — which forces Charter to negotiate in order to keep access to an enormous market — puts Cuomo in a position to extract significant concessions, perhaps even forcing it to settle a contract with Local 3.
Third, coordinate with the labor movement at the rank-and-file level, not just high-ranking union officials. We can only imagine how much more impactful both the PSC’s administrative assault and the IBEW’s picket lines would have been if they had occurred at the same time.
A leftist governor might have instructed her commission appointees to render a similar decision back in 2017, when workers were still conducting active picket lines and politicians and huge swaths of the labor movement were actively rallying behind them. Such a move would have forced Charter to fight on two fronts at once, and the controversy caused by the state nakedly acting in workers’ interest would have drawn much more press attention to the workers’ plight.
It would also have tied the interests of the state and of customers directly to those of Charter workers. While we can’t know what the outcome of this hypothetical would have been, it’s not hard to see how such a strategy would have put the workers in a much stronger bargaining position.
Finally, offer an alternative. Recently, socialist Green Party gubernatorial candidate Howie Hawkins called for the state to take over Charter’s network and run it directly. In July, a group of striking Charter workers developed a business plan for a worker-run cooperative to replace the internet giant.
Both Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio have said they support such a cooperative in theory (the proposal envisions a cooperative in New York City before expanding to the rest of the state). Future leftist officeholders in similar situations should go further, dedicating significant state resources to developing such a plan and forcing a company like Charter to sell its network to the cooperative at a discounted rate — or simply seizing it.
In all likelihood, the state and Charter will settle and Charter will remain, perhaps in exchange for a fine and some new promises the company doesn’t intend to keep. In keeping with Cuomo’s focus on union officials rather than workers, another likely outcome is that Charter will settle a contract with Local 3, preserving the union’s existence in the shop but in effect enacting most of the company’s original bargaining proposals.
Without intending to do so, the governor may have opened new possibilities to wield the power of the state in class struggle. With a wave of democratic socialists entering office, we should watch and learn.