In their recent strike, more than 30,000 union workers at Verizon say they won higher pay and limits on "outsourcing" of sales and tech support to cheap faraway call centers.
Does that put Verizon at a disadvantage with its Philadelphia-based phone-internet-video rival, Comcast?
That company typically "builds union" in Philadelphia, and 250 full-time Comcast workers in its hometown are represented by IBEW Local 98, says union president John Dougherty.
But Comcast, unlike other big utilities, also relies on nonunion outside contractors to deal with customers. When service trucks roll, "Comcast is nonunion," confirmed Austin Meehan, owner of Conshohocken-based Utility Line Services, a union contractor that counts Verizon, Exelon, Aqua, American Water, and UGI as clients.
Comcast's policy has given it greater cost and management control.
It has also meant "flattening wage rates," driving small contractors out of business, and "making overworked 'independent contractors' the industry standard in a labor force that once rewarded skilled workers," allege a couple of former Comcast installation contractors, Kevin Diehl's Cable-Line Inc. of Perkasie and McLaughlin Communications Inc. of Moosic in a federal lawsuit filed in Scranton last week.
These contractors say Comcast deceived them in 2010 when it urged them to buy trucks and hire veteran installers even as Comcast was secretly implementing "a national subcontractor reduction plan" to "kill off" the regional cable installation firms it used, "from 176 in 2009 to 39 in 2012."
They also say Comcast allowed favorite contractors to "manipulate" its system for measuring consumer problems by failing to report service calls and missing equipment.
Since 2014, the two contractors have been pushing a similar suit, claiming breach of contract, in state court. They are represented in both suits by lawyer Charles Mandracchia of Skippack.
In the state case, Comcast's defense is that it may hire and fire whom it pleases. "The contracts are very clear about the parties' rights, and we were not required to do business with these companies," spokeswoman Jenni Moyer told me.
The new suit adds an allegation of racial discrimination and names an African American-run contractor, Vitel Communications of Warren, N.J., as a Comcast codefendant.
Comcast had an extra motive for working with Vitel, the suit alleges: Keeping Vitel while firing white-owned contractors such as Cable-Line and McLaughlin helped Comcast improve its "paltry efforts at increasing diversity in the cable industry."
"Comcast is very, very performance-based" in hiring subcontractors, Vitel chief executive David Jefferson said. He added that Comcast had recently asked his firm, which he described as "definitely nonunion," to start doing some of its construction work.