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Disney May Not Be a Beauty, but Comcast Is a Real Beast to Its Own Employees

Jonathan Tasini is national director of American Rights at Work. E-mail: jtasini@americanrightsatwork.org.

Reading the media coverage of Comcast’s hostile bid to take over Disney, you would think neither company employed any workers except Disney Chief Executive Michael Eisner and Comcast chief Brian Roberts. There has been ample talk of “synergy,” battles between the CEOs, and share prices, but virtually nothing about how the merger would affect the almost 180,000 workers of the two companies in potentially life-altering ways.

Disney is not a perfect employer. Its unions have significant bargaining issues with the company; for example, 1,300 workers at two Anaheim hotels are currently locked in a battle with the company over wages and healthcare. And, abroad, Disney has used sweatshop subcontractors to manufacture large quantities of merchandise.

But it does negotiate with its unions. Indeed, in 1996 the company began offering health insurance to live-in partners of gay employees. It also has agreed to what is known as “card check” in the parts of the company that are not yet unionized. That means that workers are offered the chance to sign cards that express support for the union. Then a neutral third party checks the cards, and, by previous agreement, if a majority indicate their support for the union, the employer recognizes the union and the parties sit down to bargain a contract over wages, benefits, job security and other issues. The beauty of the card-check initiative is that it effectively eliminates the campaign of intimidation that some employers routinely embark on during a union organizing drive.

That Disney has agreed to “card check” at unorganized work sites sets it apart from the vast majority of corporations and sends a message that the company will respect the choice of the workers. Comcast, on the other hand, is a bottom feeder. It is the Wal-Mart of the telecommunications industry: Workers have no pensions, their wages and benefits are $16,000 lower than comparable workers in the telecommunications industry, and they have to pay more than $100 a month for family healthcare coverage, according to an analysis by the Communications Workers of America.

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In 2001, Comcast acquired AT&T; Broadband, which had thousands of unionized employees. Comcast promised to abide by union contracts and bargain in good faith. Instead, it embarked on a carefully orchestrated campaign to destroy the unions. In Detroit, Comcast chopped off more than half the unionized workforce, moving dozens of jobs to a nonunion facility. During organizing drives, Comcast has shelled out large sums to high-priced union-busting law firms and has harshly disciplined union supporters -- firing some outright. Numerous charges have been filed against Comcast before the National Labor Relations Board.

“They bully the workers who want to exercise their rights,” says Patrick Hunt, a labor economist with the Communications Workers of America.

I don’t presume to give Michael Eisner any advice. However, for a guy who hasn’t gotten a lot of good press lately, he has a golden opportunity to make fairness in the workplace a reason to oppose the hostile takeover attempt by Comcast, not just focus on what the merger would do to stock prices. He could say that Disney adheres to a high-road approach to its workers, recognizes that workers have the right to unionize, and that he, Eisner, believes that collective bargaining is an integral part of management’s obligation to its workers.

Doing so would contrast Disney with the low-road Comcast philosophy, which reveres the wealth of its executives over the collective good of its workers, precisely the kind of shortsighted corporate culture that is at the heart of the economic doubts and fears reverberating throughout the American workplace.

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