Philly and Seattle Setting New Franchise Standards for Comcast

Comcast Logo-background 400x300_19Pittsburgh Philadelphia and Seattle City Councils, along with the community-based pressure pushing them, are proving that there is still a lot of leverage and some bite past the bark in using cable franchise renewal agreements to wrest concessions from the arrogant, monopolistic Comcast. We have been tussling with Comcast for years now over their half-hearted efforts to comply with the FCC order that they provide affordable internet access to lower income families as a requirement of their purchase of Universal Studios. At the ACORN Canada Year End/Year Begin staff meeting, we met with Craig Robbins, Executive Director of Action United and one of the first questions raised as we shared updates on Canada’s Internet For All Campaign was, “What’s up with Comcast?” The news from Philly’s yearlong franchise renewal fight for Comcast to provide cable service was encouraging.

The Consumerist in Philly and the Philadelphia Magazine lay out the improvements broadly:

…the city will get the maximum franchise fee of 5% of all the gross revenues from Comcast’s cable service, which right now is more than $17 million annually. Comcast will also increase funding for public, educational, and government access programs as well as upgrade the technology in over 200 city buildings at no cost. Comcast is also being required to provide education to high school seniors, provide some graduates with jobs, and meet Philadelphia’s living wage and prevailing wage rules. And last but not least, the city is requiring that Comcast drop one of the most onerous requirements for low-income families to enrolling in the Internet Essentials program, and will be included on the pilot program to expand eligibility to senior citizens — as well as any other pilot program that Comcast conducts with Internet Essentials in the future.

The Internet Essentials program is the euphemistic compliance effort for lower income families which Comcast has tried to do on the skinny with a maze of disqualifying rules while passing off any outreach to beleaguered public school districts. Craig told us one of the changes involved dropping the bar for joining the program if a family had had service with Comcast within 90 days. Yes, you get it, Comcast didn’t want a lower income family to escape an unaffordable package to benefit from Essentials. There are also indications that Comcast will have to relax its requirement that any participant pay all of remaining past balances in order to participate. Craig was careful to credit the involvement of a citywide coalition, Media Mobilizing, as the critical driver for a new agreement.

Seattle after a year of negotiating on their 10-year renewal walked away from signing an agreement with Comcast hearing about the terms in Philly and demanded “me, too” and more.

…KIRO reports that Comcast had already promised Seattle 600 free connections for nonprofits, $8 million in support for public, education, or government channels, free service to government and school buildings, and access to Internet Essentials. As compared to the Philadelphia deal, though, that leaves a lot of Seattle residents out in the digital cold. So, as the Seattle Times reports, city officials sent a letter to Comcast demanding a deal more like Philly’s… and they won. During weekend negotiations, Comcast agreed to include Seattle’s seniors in the Internet Essentials expansion pilot, as well as to increase a city grant for narrowing the digital divide tenfold, from $50,000 to $500,000.

Clearly Comcast didn’t all of a sudden become a warm and fuzzy good corporate citizen in these communities, but the movement on lowering barriers to lower income families, adding eligibility for senior citizens to fixed cost basic access, and, very importantly, finally putting real dollars into outreach for enrollment, rather than its own self-serving marketing, all add up to real progress. Houston, Shreveport, Little Rock, Charlotte, and other Comcast-captive cities, take note, we have leverage, and we need to use it

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Minimum Wage Increases for Tipped Employees are Critical

tipsLondon    Great news from Seattle as a major US city stepped up and put workers on track to make $15 per hour.  Regular minimum wage workers would see their wages in smaller enterprises go up steadily until 2021 to achieve that level.  Big employers with 500 or more workers, like Amazon, would get there between 2017 and 2018 depending on their health insurance.

Council members said they were going someplace people had never been.  Really, they are only going there first.  Professors asked for comment said they had never studied the impacts of “a doubling of the minimum wage.”  But, as we discussed recently, this is not as radical as the chest thumping presumes.  The current minimum wage in Washington State is not the measly $7.25 federal level but a more robust $9.32, indexed to inflation with annual bumps.  So, going to $15 per hour is a jump of $5.68 over 7 years or 81 cents annually, rather than the annual 70 cents per year increase that we saw with the last federal increase under Bush many long years ago.  No one was foolhardy here.  They kept in line with established precedents and practice in raising minimum wages, they just got there first and led the way, and hip-hip-hooray for them!

Importantly, tipped workers are fully covered in this jump, and given the number of areas around the country where they have been frozen at bare pennies above two dollars per hour for the last twenty-two years, that’s huge in and of itself.  To Washington’s credit tipped employees have been fully covered by the state minimum wage already, joining a select crowd, largely in the West that includes only Alaska, Oregon, Montana, Nevada, California, and, oh, yeah, let’s keep it nice in Minnesota, too, and give Hawaii some props for only being a quarter under the minimum there.

Crazily in an early story on this victory, a bartender in Bellevue was quoted saying that $15 per hour would lower his tips, so he was betting he would still do better in Bellevue with the lower state minimum wage than bartenders would do in Seattle.  How silly?  Like he’s going to stay behind that bar for 7 years to find out?  Or, like bar customers are going to think that their tender or servers getting another 80 odd cents per hour every year aren’t still depending on their tips.  This is the kind of economic analysis that is keeping this guy behind the bar and servicing an exploitative business model in the food and beverage industry throughout the country.

What workers really know is that their regulars tip more than casuals and the home folks way, way more than tourists.  You get good tips for good service from people who care about you and care about the kind of service they get at your establishment.  As long as there are tips, that doesn’t change, only the local tradition and culture in the country, where believe it or not there are places in the world where workers turn back tips as a professional insult, or where wages are seen as decent so the level of tipping is more minor or more American.  Tipped workers in Seattle are always going to do better than tipped workers now in Bellevue and most other places in the country, because they’ll have a higher minimum wage to start with, rain or shine, and weather does matter, and, let’s face it, their regulars make more money in Seattle than the rest of Washington, even Bellevue, and certainly than America, so they’ll always do better, dude.

Recently when the Michigan legislature bit the bullet and raised their minimums to try and take the steam out of a ballot initiative, the head of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) continued to clamor that it didn’t work because it didn’t raise up tipped workers.  She’s right and the Bellevue bartender is wrong.  We have to do better across the board here, so that all boats rise when the minimum wage goes up.

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