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August 22, 2016


Now that broadband internet is a public utility, both cable companies and telephone companies need to pay for public access television — not try to defund it

Last week, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ) was pleased to welcome the Alliance for Community Media (ACM) 2016 Annual Conference to our mini metropolis. Staff, board members, and volunteers from public access television stations from the around the nation were camped at the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel — sharing skills, networking, and, unfortunately, discussing the best way to survive in a hostile political climate. Because despite being one of America’s greatest remaining democratic communications resources, public access TV is perennially fighting to preserve its funding. In honor of the ACM conference, I wrote the following commentary for the pilot episode of Beyond Boston — a video news digest that BINJ just launched this month in partnership with several area public access TV stations, including: Brookline Interactive Group (BIG), Cambridge Community Television (CCTV), Malden Access TV (MATV), and Somerville Community Access Television (SCAT). Our aim is to feature news produced at local public access TV stations and link it to news we produce at BINJ. Expanding the reach of all our work by effectively merging our audiences. Check out the show on participating stations and on the new Beyond Boston YouTube channel. And read on to get some perspective on the crisis facing a vital community media resource.

Public access television is one of greatest innovations of the grassroots movement for media democracy in the last half century. Also known as community television,  it has helped cities and towns nationwide to have their very own cable TV channels. Allowing residents to keep up with local news and views while enjoying a wide variety of arts and entertainment programming — most of which is produced by their family, friends and neighbors. Filling the gap in local nonprofit media options left by PBS and NPR.

One of the best things about public access television is the way it’s funded. Community media pioneers like noted filmmaker George Stoney helped craft regulations back in the late 1960s that made everything go. They were based on the principle that cable companies should pay an annual franchise fee to cities and towns in exchange for being able to build out their systems on municipal rights-of-way. In other words, companies like Comcast have to pay local governments for stringing their cables along public streets. That money can then be used to equip and sometimes staff public access stations. And those stations get used by the local population to celebrate their culture. Expanding free speech in the process.

That funding mechanism worked pretty well — despite a bunch of political speed bumps there’s no time to discuss today — until the telephone companies joined cable companies in offering broadband internet service about a decade back. Soon people in many places were getting all the content carried over the old cable systems and much much more from both telephone companies like Verizon and cable companies like Comcast. This created a problem for funding public access stations because cable companies offering broadband still had to pay the franchise fee to local governments that is used to finance those stations. But telephone companies that now also provide broadband don’t have to pay that franchise fee.

This has potentially provided the cable companies an opening to get rid of the franchise fee by stating that it’s unfair that they have to pay when the telephone companies don’t. Putting public access funding in extreme jeopardy. However, last year, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that broadband internet service is a public utility. Raising the possibility that both cable companies and telephone companies could be mandated to pay a franchise fee to cities and towns in exchange for stringing their broadband wires on public land.

The FCC is still figuring out how to proceed on that front, and they are under intense pressure from cable companies and telephone companies to free them from all responsibility for funding public access stations. So it is critical that everyone who supports public access media gets together with other interested folks in your community and starts building a new grassroots movement to demand the FCC apply the franchise fee to both cable companies and telephone companies. A win on this issue will keep public access stations funded for decades to come. And that’s a big win for democracy.


Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.



May 6, 2016


As the Verizon strike enters its fourth week, the 39,000 union members on picket lines up and down the East Coast—and now taking their campaign nationwide—are continuing to hold fast for a better contract than the giant corporation has thus far been willing to offer. But a strike is no walk in the park. Not in the America of 2016. On May 1, International Workers’ Day,  Verizon cut off health care benefits to the strikers and their familiesan estimated 110,000 people overall. And while the two unions organizing the strike—Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW)—have socked away millions to pay strike benefits, helped members file for expensive stopgap COBRA health insurance, and even offered to pay medical expenses for members outright in the case of CWA, many people with chronic conditions are being put at serious risk of having their medical care disrupted. With potentially dire consequences.

Yet it’s difficult to find mentions of this vicious move by Verizon in the major American press. Coverage of the issue has been spotty at best. Despite it being a great example of why working families need proper national healthcare. Almost like it was not news at all. Even in centers of strike activity like Boston.

That’s a problem. When there are big layoffs by large companies owned by extraordinarily wealthy people, when wages are slashed, when huge numbers of jobs are outsourced to countries with even worse labor standards than our diminishing protections here in the US, much of the news media treats these tremendous crises for working people as mere footnotes to the much more important coverage of corporate bottom lines.

If any criticisms are raised—usually in passing and rhetorically—they are generally dismissed with easy answers. As with the 12,000 workers currently being laid off by microchip titan Intel. A recent and very typical article in The Oregonian, the Pacific Northwest’s newspaper of record, discusses the 2150 expected layoffs in their state matter-of-factly—explaining that Intel is “Oregon’s largest private employer and pays some of the state’s best wages.” So the loss of so many good paying jobs is really going to hurt the regional economy. But the piece then goes on to say that “Intel is a hugely profitable company—and a growing one.” It has other exciting divisions doing lots of whiz-bang things. Sure, those divisions are not necessarily in Oregon or even in the US—Intel being yet another multinational with robust manufacturing operations in low-wage countries like India—and it’s not at all clear that workers in those other divisions will make money as good as the laid-off American chip workers made. Nonetheless, the basic message of such articles is that “the market will take care of it.” Jobs will be lost here, but gained back elsewhere. Then all will be well and right with the world again.

But “the market” doesn’t take care of working families. It takes care of owners and top executives and big investors. Who use their massive and growing profits in this New Gilded Age to rig the political and economic systems to focus on their interests. Not everyone else’s.


That’s why Verizon’s union workers are on strike. It’s gotten to the point where they have no choice. In large part because the company has been doing its level best to wipe out its unions since its formation in 2000. To remove the last obstacle to allowing its management the freedom to do what so many non-unionized American companies are able to do to their workforces with impunity: ship many once-decent jobs abroad, and turn the rest into part-time, contract and temp jobs. Hiring people when they need them, and getting rid of them with impunity when they don’t. With no promise or expectation of good wages, benefits or job security.

All of these corporate moves are best described as economic violence. Because they destroy lives. And for all the criticism that labor gets for being unreasonable on the still-too-rare occasions that it mounts more than symbolic protests, unions like CWA and IBEW are remarkably restrained in the face of that ongoing violence. Hands tied by decades of anti-labor legislation, they limit their responses to those allowed by law: withholding their labor for as long as possible, picketing Verizon properties, “mobile picketing” (following scabs to worksites and talking to consumers about the strike), encouraging the public to boycott Verizon Wireless, and gamely waging PR battles in an often dismissive pro-corporate press. Trying to win enough hearts and minds to convince Verizon management that settling with the union is cheaper than letting the strike drag on.

Which might work this time as it has in several past strikes. But it’s getting harder for unions like CWA and IBEW as the years go by and their membership continues to shrink at the hands of mercenary profit-hungry companies like Verizon. They’re in a very difficult situation. But there’s one thing that readers can easily do to help expedite Verizon union workers’ herculean task of defending what they have while fighting to expand the labor movement back to some semblance of its former strength: When you hear about economic violence by bosses against workers, spread the word. Tell your friends, family and workmates. Don’t let atrocities like cutting health care benefits on striking workers remain a footnote in the national discourse. Make some noise. Then do the same at your own workplace when things get tough. Learn from Verizon’s unions. Fight back however you can. And in a few years, labor conditions might start finally improving for American workers again.

Readers who would like to support the Verizon strikers should visit

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.



Photo by Jason Pramas

April 22, 2016


BOSTON –  From the St. James Avenue side of Copley Square on Thursday afternoon, passers-by could be forgiven for wondering what the group of 300 people in red T-shirts opposite them was cheering about. If they were told that they were seeing the front lines of a desperate battle for the future of the American working class, they wouldn’t believe it. But the Communications Workers of America and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers members and their families did not turn out for a nice day in the sun. They were there to fight.

The general public may be aware that 39,000 unionized Verizon workers (out of a total of 178,000) have been out on strike for a few days—including many here in Boston. But the vast majority of onlookers don’t understand the stakes.

Verizon (officially Verizon Communications, Inc.) is no ordinary company. Rather it’s a vast telecommunications conglomerate that has benefited hugely from government tax breaks, subsidies, and a favorable regulatory climate since it was created in 2000 out of the merger of Bell Atlantic (which had only recently merged with fellow “Baby Bell” NYNEX) and GTE.

It has two major businesses: its traditional wireline service, based on the old copper wire phone system and the newer fiber optic FiOS service (weirdly coming soon to Boston six years after Verizon said it would stopping building it out in any new cities). That’s where virtually all of the company’s 39,000 unionized workers are employed. Then it has Verizon Wireless—which was originally a joint venture of Bell Atlantic and the British telecom Vodafone, bought outright by Verizon in 2014. Only a handful of its wireless employees are currently unionized.


Photo by Jason Pramas

Basically, Verizon leadership wants to focus on its extremely profitable wireless division and cut back its wireline service. The numbers show why. According to Fortunemagazine, “Wireless now brings in the vast majority of the company’s sales and profits. Last year, for example, the wireless unit brought in revenue of $91.7 billion, up 5% from a year earlier, and an operating profit of nearly $30 billion. The older wireline unit, which also includes wired video and Internet service, brought in revenue of only $37.7 billion, a 2% decline from the year before, and an operating profit of just $2.2 billion.”

Unfortunately, Verizon—like so many companies these days (our “new Boston neighbors” at General Electric spring to mind)—is a world class tax dodger and loves soaking the government for free handouts. According to the nonprofit Citizens for Tax Justice, between 2008 and 2013, the corporation made over $42 billion in profits, received a $732 million tax break (an effective federal tax rate of -2 percent), and paid almost $1.3 billion in state taxes (an effective state tax rate of 3 percent).  In the same period, it made almost $4 billion in foreign profits and paid $274 million in taxes (an effective foreign tax rate of 7 percent). And this year? In the first quarter of 2016, Verizon has made $4.31 billion in profits.

According to the nonprofit Good Jobs First, Verizon has also received about $149 million in state and federal subsidies. Free money. And about $1.5 billion in federal loans, loan guarantees, and bailout assistance. Almost free money.

The nonprofit Americans for Tax Fairness adds: “Verizon also reported $1.9 billion in accumulated offshore profits in 2012, on which it paid no U.S. income taxes … Verizon raked in $956 million in federal contracts in 2011, according to the federal government. It also recently landed a new nine-year government-wide contract worth up to $5 billion to provide communications services and equipment to federal agencies.”

So Verizon is filthy rich with help from its friends in the government. Just like its predecessor, AT&T, in the days of “natural monopoly” before its 1984 breakup into regional Baby Bells. Unlike the old AT&T, though, Verizon is not interested in putting up with a unionized workforce in exchange for what are approaching monopoly profits in markets it and the handful of other remaining telecoms dominate. It has eliminated thousands of unionized jobs since 2000. How many? There were 85,000 unionized Verizon workers on strike in that year. There are 39,000 now. Do the math.

Photo by Jason Pramas

Photo by Jason Pramas

This brings us to the central issue of the strike. Verizon wants to convert lots of decent jobs—unionized and ununionized—to contract jobs. Many of them abroad. Union leaders recently told CNN Money: “Verizon has outsourced 5,000 jobs to workers in Mexico, the Philippines, and the Dominican Republic.” The company is also “hiring more low-wage, non-union contractors.” Increasing wages, minimizing out-of-pocket health costs, preserving job security, keeping traditional pensions, and stopping forced out-of-state work transfers are all very important issues, too. And certainly worthy of more discussion in these pages. But, as ever, contingent work is a dagger pointed at the throat of organized labor. According to Computerworld, the Trade Adjustment Assistance forms that workers losing their jobs due to outsourcing file with the US Department of Labor show that offshoring jobs is indeed proceeding apace at Verizon—despite management denials.

Once jobs have left the US, it’s highly unlikely they’re coming back. And if it’s hard for unions to organize units like Verizon Wireless now, it’s nearly impossible to organize workers transnationally. Similarly, once “regular” full-time jobs with benefits have been replaced with lousy part-time, contract and other contingent jobs, it’s very difficult to convert them back. And it’s extremely difficult to organize contingent workers into unions or other types of labor organizations.

That is why this strike matters to all American workers. If well organized and militant union members at Verizon—who have gone on strike against the company and its predecessors in 1983, 1986, 1989, 1998, 2000, 2004, 2011 and now—can’t stop the outsourcing and destruction of decent jobs, unorganized workers spread across the planet in industries like telecommunications will find the task insurmountable.

Yet that’s where we’re heading. The end of traditional labor unions. The end of decent jobs. The war of all against all. This is where latter day capitalism is taking us. Unless we help good unions like CWA and IBEW win this strike, and start expanding the labor movement again. This isn’t about “the dignity of labor,”as the Boston Globe would have it. It’s about class war. Working people didn’t start it. But we sure as hell had better finish it. Before it finishes us.

Readers who would like to support the Verizon strikers should visit


Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.