Hip Hop Solidarity versus the Americana Bully


For two weeks in the middle of August, 2011, 45,000 CWA and IBEW union members struck Verizon. Concentrated in the northeast, it was the largest nationwide strike since 2007.  Enthusiastic picket lines popped up all over New York City, including across the street from my apartment, and were met with a surprising amount of good will from the public. It would be less than a month later, on September 17, that Occupy Wall Street would materialize in Zucotti Park. (Also referred to as Liberty Plaza)

Occupy is often characterized as a mix of politicos, idealists, unemployed college graduates, and drifters. But the Verizon strike is too close in time and space to ignore. In 2011 Verizon’s corporate headquarters as well as the work location for most of its lower Manhattan employees were in 140 West Street, a 10 minute walk from Zucotti Park. When the two week strike was called off by the union, members went back to work and bargaining resumed, as it turned out, for another year, until a new contract was accepted. That meant that lunchtime picketing continued out of Verizon  locations including 140 West Street before, during, and after the two month occupation of Zucotti Park. Occupiers walked over to 140 West Street. CWA members walked over to Zucotti.

Out in Brooklyn, near the last stop on the L train, employees of non-unionized Cablevision noticed the lively picket lines in August, walked into the office of the Brooklyn CWA Local and asked for union cards.  On January 26, 2012, those cable techs voted 180 to 86 to join the union. The Occupy slogan of the 99% and the 1% was now in full circulation, and this group would commonly be called the Cablevision 99%, placing the Brooklyn fight for a union inside the larger public struggle about economic inequality.

Enter James Dolan, the CEO of the Cablevision dynasty, described by the Hollywood Reporter as “the North Korea of the cable business. No one understands what they are doing, but everybody is concerned.”

Cobbled together by his father Chuck, Cablevision owns the cable franchises for most of New York City outside of Manhattan, as well as big chunks of Long Island, Connecticut and New Jersey. In the late 1990s it took full control of Madison Square Garden, including the Knicks, the Rangers, MSG network, Radio City Music Hall, and venues across the country.

Sports teams are a uniquely valuable source of content and hence leverage for a vertically integrated, competitive media conglomerate. Fans won’t subscribe to delivery systems that can’t provide in the moment access to home team games. But the opportunities for show biz leverage would prove of equal value when mixed with Dolan’s dollars in the pursuit of his hobby: Americana singer-songwriter, leader of JD and the Straight Shot.

When you want to prop up such a fantasy, it helps having friends like Harvey Weinstein, producer of Autumn: Osage County, to include one of your songs on the soundtrack. Or music mogul (and fellow songwriter) Edgar Bronfman Jr., to release your CD. Or business partner Irving Azoff, who manages JD and the Straight Shot and The Eagles.

When he wasn’t touring or rehearsing with the Straight Shot, or meddling with the Knicks, Dolan still had time to contain and then attempt to eliminate the trade union contagion in his Cablevision outer borough empire, even though he had long since made the necessary accommodations to the stagehand and players unions at the Garden.

So before a similar group of Cablevision techs in the Bronx could hold their vote to join the union. Dolan helicoptered to their work location and threatened the entire Bronx with loss of infrastructure investment if they brought in the union. Then he boosted pay throughout all of Cablevision – except at the unionized Brooklyn division – by an unprecedented 14%, an increase of between $2 and $9 an hour.

The Bronx techs voted down the union. Now Dolan worked the classic endgame from the union-busting playbook of the last half century, dragging out negotiations for that crucial first union contract, counting on employees to eventually concede that there was no point in voting in a union after all, proving the company line that the union negotiators were making unreasonable demands.

Aware of this, in January 2013, 22 union members took advantage of the company’s so-called open door policy  to drop in on management one morning and let them know that they were still supporting the CWA bargaining team. In an obviosuly preplanned sweep, all 22 were fired on the spot for being off the job, even though some of them had not yet begun their workday. Now the union had another reference point: The Cablevision 22. (Sometimes referred to as the Tech 22).

Wasn’t this illegal? Sure, but the so-called labor board, or NLRB in 2013 was understaffed, slow, and often toothless. Cablevision had an all-star collection of publicists and lawyers, including Randy Mastro, a deputy mayor under Guiliani and Chris Christie’s Bridgegate attorney. Dolan wasn’t afraid of confrontation, he had successfully fought Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to build a stadium for the Jets just west of Madison Square Garden. Running out the clock on employee endurance could win the game.

The firing of the Cablevision 22, however, was so outrageous that it pulled together a coalition of Brooklyn politicians, clergy, and every Democratic candidate in the upcoming mayoral primary, including the next mayor, Bill de Blasio. By the end of March, the 22 had been rehired, an outcome unachievable without the union’s own investment in lawyers, political connections, organizers, and community support. And a newer weapon: members of the Cablevision 22 who were more than familiar with Public Enemy style hip hop, live and on tape.

Click here to view their You Tube video “Dear Mr. Dolan” shot at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington in August, 2013 and on the boardwalk in Coney Island.

Where the papers at? A year after the DC march there was still no contract.

In August, 2014, Jerome Thompson, one of the leaders of the unionizers, and a key creator of the videos and live raps, was fired for a third time.

In his own words, “I was in a company branding meeting, and they started off the meeting with images of two different ships, a colonial ship and a pirate ship. They said, “When you see the pirate flag you expect this is going to happen, it’s not going to end well.” At the end of the meeting they asked for questions or comments, so I raised my hand and said, “There was a third ship in that ocean, there was a slave ship. The biggest stain on the American brand is chattel slavery. Do you want that same stain on the Cablevision brand by not giving us parity, by not bargaining fairly with the Brooklyn workers?”

Thompson was officially fired for his work history.  But there was no contract, and so no grievance procedure.

A month later, on September 12, 2014 James Dolan appeared on the Today show to hype his new CD, Where I’ve Been and announced that JD and the Straight Shot would be opening for the Eagles the next night at – where else? – Madison Square Garden. That same day, lengthy profiles highlighting his musical pursuits and hyping the Eagles gig appeared in the NY Times and the NY Post. There was no profile in the NY Daily News, which had been feuding with Dolan since the Jets Stadium fight and was the only New York daily to consistently report on the union struggles in Brooklyn.

The profiles, TV appearances, and videos don’t reveal that Dolan and his hired accomplices were off the stage by 7:15 before most of the audience had arrived. The tickets and the promo show the concert starting at 8 pm with no mention of an opening act, and in fact, that night the Eagles took the stage at 8:20.

Here’s quotes from those Times and Post profiles.

“I’m an artist, and an artist doesn’t worry about being politically correct when I write.”

“The artist in me needs to be free” he told The Post about the lyrics of his bluesy folk songs, which sound more like the cries of a Beat poet than the measured statements of a CEO with a $1.5 billion fortune.”  (My emphasis. Check out how this quote gets twisted in the promo video linked four paragraphs down. It’s as if a critic wrote “Tom Smucker’s banjo playing is more like Earl Scruggs than the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.” And then I quote that as “Tom Smucker’s banjo playing is . . . like Earl Scruggs.”)

Back to Dolan: “I’m entitled to my opinion. I am not the chairman, CEO, etc. standing up there on that stage. I am the singer-songwriter.”

And from the Daily Times in Knoxville, Tennessee, January, 2015, before a live broadcast on WDVX-FM.

“Everything else I do in my life, other than raising my boys—one of whom is in my band – I do through other people.  I don’t shoot basketballs, I don’t score goals; I don’t hook up cable TVs to people’s houses. I manage and own companies that do that, but I don’t do it myself. This is really the only thing in my life that goes directly from my hands and my head to the consumer – in this case the listener – and that connection you get when you make something yourself and you give it to somebody, I don’t have anywhere else in my life. I think it’s real important, and I make time for it.”

Let’s not begrudge the lonesome CEO his right as a guitar playing American to find comfort in his music and his imaginary ramblin’ man identity and his ability to provide employment for actual musicians. But let’s not let him get away with claiming as hard won insights some commonly shared, somewhat worn out ideas about music and freedom and artists accepting no boundaries, telling it like it is and keeping it real, when he has bankrolled a hobby to create the illusion of popular and personal achievement.

In fact, it’s Dolan who’s being politically correct, if you go by the politics of the last forty years. Ever since Ronald Reagan crushed PATCO, CEOs (and politicians) have been  encouraged to crush attempts at union organizing and unions themselves, because the guy at the top of the heap should have the right to do whatever he must  do. And here’s where, at least for me, it gets a little creepy.

On the new album, and highlighted in the promo video, there’s a Trayvon Martin song. Sample lyric: “Under the hood, so misunderstood.” Four minutes into the promo video Dolan observes “it’s an American tragedy and it brings up issues that we shouldn’t forget about.” This from a rich and powerful white CEO who has gone to great lengths to deny his largely African-American and Hispanic work force the dignity of union representation. That’s the political correctness of this “anti-racist” and anti-union wealthy white (neo) liberal.

And if you really want to stare into the heart of darkness, or maybe the heart of the matter, consider JD & the Straight Shot’s evolution from an urban blues band to a countryish Eagles Americana opening act. Who were on the Farm Aid tour! Until, as the story goes, Willie Nelson threw them off because the unions were going to picket, and Willie doesn’t cross picket lines.

Just to be clear: I’m an old white guy who loves the Beach Boys and listens to Linda Ronstadt, Lawrence Welk, Carpenters, everyone named Cash, and Merle Haggard. This isn’t for me an issue of hipness or musical taste; it’s a question of how perversely a musical category generally defined as white that I appreciate can be bent to serve as a cover for purposes I abhor. And whether that calls into question the whole idea of Americana as a definition for a type of music. (And while we’re at it, here’s a subject for further study. Why did Dolan leave his hockey team, the NY Rangers, alone to thrive under stable leadership, while forcing a constant churn on his basketball team, the NY Knicks?)

Operating inside this history, it’s the Cablevision 99% who are refusing to be politically correct by braiding together the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, Hip Hop culture, trade union Solidarity, and the Occupy Wall Street critique. That kind of combination hasn’t been considered possible or worth the effort since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, gun downed while supporting the union organizing of the African American sanitation workers.

At the beginning of the rollout of publicity for the new CD in September, 2014, Dolan’s musical jumble was still presented to the public through the media as a refuge from the rigors of holding on to power, or at least as an amusing and perhaps distracting sidebar–” the rockin’ billionaire”. Then events made that distraction look more like a mask, and then the mask began to slip and the musical identity looked more like the egotistical, sometimes self-defeating “fixing” of the Knicks and battling with the union.

Maybe on some financial ledgers that we will never get to see, it really is all about the money. But from what I can put together, if Dolan’s greedy, it’s for power. At Cablevision he gave every non-unionized employee a substantial raise, just to keep the union out. With the Knicks, he repeatedly undermined attempts to build a team by trading that team away to buy the one overpriced superstar who was supposed to turn things around, but didn’t. With the music, rather than settle into a sideline as a one-of-the-gang occasional sideman, or co-writer with a couple of decent songs, he insists and spends the money on remaining the “leader” of a “band.”

In February 2015, just before the NBA All Star game at Madison Square Garden, a 72 year old Knicks fan with connections in the media, Irving Berman, emailed James Dolan, begging him to take pity on the fans and sell the Knicks. Dolan responded with a nasty, lengthy email that told Berman, among other things, to “Start rooting for the Nets, because the Knicks don’t want you.” Both emails went public and the Daily News, in particular, went into overdrive, even headlining a not at all typical m-f-ing quote from Charles Oakley, key rebounder on the last great Knicks teams of the 1990s.

The mask slipped off.

February 13, 2015 Cablevision and the CWA reached an agreement on a contract.

February 14, the 262 Brooklyn Cablevision techs voted to ratify that new contract. Click here to view a two minute video in YouTube recorded that day. (The musical loop on this is from an earlier video. Click here for that video in full)

Why did Dolan finally compromise? The publicity? The politics? The Knicks? Mayor de Blasio? Fatigue? A legal showdown on the horizon? Big time finances? We will never know. The North Korea analogy applies. Maybe he realized the article to the left was going to appear in the NY Times that Sunday. A profile that finally put it all together, dubbing him A Consumate 1 Percenter.

The good guys win at the end of this movie, but the bad guy will be back for the sequel. Dolan’s compensation for 2014 was up 40%. Jerome Thompson still hasn’t been rehired. The rest of Cablevision remains non-union. 

Tom Smucker, April, 2015


Oedipus at the Garden, by Joel Siegel, New York Magazine, March 28, 2005

Jim Dolan’s band to open for the Eagles at MSG, by Tara Palmeri, New York Post, September 12, 2014

A New Track and a New Tack:

James Dolan Steps Away From Knicks and Onto the Stage by Scott Cacciola, New

York Times, September 12, 2014.

The Man Who Wasn’t There: James Dolan and His Disappearing Act Opening for the Eagles, by Jason Concepcion, grantland.com September 15, 2014. Highly recommended.

Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire join James Dolan on stage to play kazoos. For charity, by Kelly Dwyer, Ball Don’t Lie, September 19, 2014

In Battle Pitting Cablevision Chief Against Union, Neither Appears Ready to Relent, by Steven Greenhouse, New York Times, December 25, 2014

Straight Talk: CEO, pro sports owner James Dolan just wants to rock ‘n’ roll by Steve Wildsmith, thedailytimes.com, January 28, 2015

James Dolan, a Consummate 1 Percenter by Michael Powell, New York Times, February 14, 2015

How 262 Cable Technicians Defeated a Union-Busting Giant by Sarah Jaffe, The Nation magazine, February 23, 2015

Links to above articles on the web: Valid as of 4/24/15




https://grantland.com/the-triangle/the-man-who-wasnt-there-james-dolan-and-his-disappearing-act-opening-for-the-eagles/ Highly recommended




© 2015 Tom Smucker