Cablevision Sues CWA for Defamation

Cablevision Sues CWA for Defamation

Cablevision Sues CWA for Defamation
September 25, 2014

Cablevision, the cable giant that has already taken aim at New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for supporting the company's employees' fight to unionize in Brooklyn, filed a defamation lawsuit Wednesday in state Supreme Court in Nassau County against the union representing the workers.

The lawsuit seeks injunctive relief from the Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 1109, its larger umbrella union CWA District 1 and its Vice President Chris Shelton, as well as Jerome Thompson, an ex-Cablevision employee, for "malicious dissemination of false and damaging statements about Cablevision." The statements referred to in the lawsuit center around the recent termination of Thompson, who claims he was let go by the company after comparing Cablevision's treatment of the Brooklyn workers who want to unionize to that of slaves.

“The CWA union is knowingly disseminating false and defamatory statements in an attempt to negatively impact Cablevision’s business and damage the reputation of the company and its employees," Cablevision said in a statement about the lawsuit. "The CWA’s desperate campaign is designed to spread lies and misinformation to Cablevision’s customers, elected officials and the public at large. It is clear that the CWA will stop at nothing to advance its selfish interests and we are asking the Court to put an immediate halt to their unlawful and malicious activities.”

Thompson, a former Brooklyn field technician, made the slavery remark during a meeting on Aug. 6. The stated purpose of the meeting was to explain the company’s efforts at rebranding the Optimum brand, and the company brought in a branding expert to speak. The expert explained what branding is by using an analogy of settlers coming to the United States and encountering pirates. His point was that the pirate flag is a clear, although negative brand. When people see the pirate flag they know what to expect as the people (pirates) who use the brand consistently deliver on those expectations.

After he was finished, Thompson said that there was another ship in those waters at the time of the settlers and pirates: the slave ship, which tarnished the American brand.  He said that, as a Cablevison employee, he did not want the Optimum brand to be tarnished the same way by the unfair treatment of the Brooklyn technicians. Thompson told the Daily News that no one at the meeting appeared to take offense to his comment, and that one executive even thanked him for up the point of the ongoing labor strife.

Yet on Aug. 30, Cablevision fired Thompson, giving him no reason but instead submitting a list of alleged reasons why he was discharged, which are detailed in the company's complaint to the Supreme Court. The violations include being late for work nine times and leaving early for a doctor's appointment in 2004; missing a mandatory work meeting; being suspended in 2012 for taking more than two hours to travel from his depot to his first job (a discipline that was later rescinded by Cablevision Vice President Rick LeVesque, who brought him back with full pay); and various minor violations such as "showing up for work improperly dressed" by not wearing an Optimum hat. 

The complaint's allegations against Shelton and CWA deal primarily with the statements made following Thompson's termination, including flyers distributed outside an event held by Cablevision CEO James Dolan accusing the company of racism for firing Thompson. The company accuses CWA of damaging its business reputation as a result of circulating these statements and flyers, and harming its reputation with elected officials "who have oversight responsibilities with respect to Cablevision's franchise and/or local state regulation of its operations...." The complaint specifically names City Councilman Andy King and Public Advocate Letitia James, both of whom expressed concern about the nature of Thompson's dismissal. 

On behalf of CWA and the Local 1109, Shelton released a statement rejecting the claims Cablevision made in the complaint. 

“This is just another in a string of baseless and frivolous lawsuits from Cablevision, which, like all the earlier ones, will be dismissed," Shelton said. "Rather than stop the outrageous behavior at Cablevision and pay Brooklyn workers the same wages as other Cablevision employees, James Dolan is again turning to expensive lawyers to try to intimidate workers and their allies. It's time for him to sit down and negotiate in good faith with Cablevision workers.”

Cablevision's lawsuit is the latest development in an ongoing fight with CWA and the Brooklyn employees ever since they voted to join the union in January 2012. CWA has accused Cablevision of intentionally delaying the unionization process and excluding the Brooklyn workers from the $2 to $9 annual raises the company’s non-union workers were granted that same year. The two sides have gone back and forth in filing complaints to the National Labor Relations Board, which is expected to rule on many of these complaints in coming months. 

Most recently, CWA accused Cablevision of rigging an internal vote among Brooklyn workers that the company cited as evidence that a plurality of the workers opposed joining the union. The workers are still working without a contract, though bargaining sessions have continued despite the tension between both sides, with tentative agreements on as many as 50 contract provisions. 

Nick Powell