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Art Brodsky

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Labor Leads Netroots (and Others) Astray on AT&T Takeover

Posted: 06/23/11 03:13 PM ET

For sponsoring the wi-fi service at the Netroots Nation conference, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) get rights to the first screen that everyone at the event sees when signing on to the network.

In past years, the opening message has been fairly innocuous, like a pitch for the union's "speed matters" campaign for faster Internet service. Who can disagree with the need to invest in high-speed Internet connection, right?

This year was different. This year, without the knowledge of the conference organizers, attendees got something more potent and controversial -- a pitch for the AT&T takeover of T-Mobile or, as the union characterized it on the home screen, "Fighting for collective bargaining rights at T-Mobile." As the site said, "T-Mobile is up for sale, and a merger with AT&T will give more than 20,000 T-Mobile workers a real opportunity to form a union without fear of being fired." Keep that 20,000 figure in mind.

There's no doubt that unions are an integral part of Netroots Nation, (#nn11 to the tweeterati). The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) put nice water bottles in the AFL-CIO-sponsored tote bags. AFT President Randi Weingarten got a prime spot for a speech in the opening keynote session with former Democratic National Committee Chairman (and crowd fave) Howard Dean and former Sen. Russ Feingold. The rival National Education Association had a small table in the exhibition area as did the International Association of Firefighters, California School Employees Association (which sponsored a box lunch), LiUNA and AFSCME. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) sponsored a fancy reception and their members wore bright yellow shirts. Of the 18 "premier sponsors" of the event, 10 were labor-related organizations.

There were lots of labor speakers, and labor-sympathetic speakers, scattered throughout the panels and speeches talking about how unions improved the lives of working Americans. At the same time, as one might expect, there was a lot of talk about the role of corporations and the role of the well-off. Psychology Prof. Drew Westen told one panel that "millionaires should be giving to charity, not getting it" in the form of lower taxes. And there was discussion about the Federal courts trending to protecting companies (as borne out by the Supreme Court's decision not to let 1.5 million women who work for Wal-Mart file a class-action suit.) On one panel, Carl Pope, chairman of the Sierra Club, criticized the Supreme Court for giving corporations too much power to influence campaigns.

But what happens when unions, or otherwise well-meaning progressive groups, fall in with the corporations, out of naivete or other reasons? Then it causes political heartburn on the left that's rarely discussed. The Sierra Club, for example, over the past couple of years has had the unfortunate tendency to fall in with AT&T and its allies.

In a May 25 letter to Congress, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said "we add our voice to that of our brothers and sisters in the labor movement to express optimism about the potential expansion of broadband that the proposed merger of AT&T and T-Mobile provides." The Sierra Club thinks that AT&T will bring its 4G LTE service to 95 percent of the American population, which is helpful when you want to curb emissions.

In this and other letters, the Sierra Club has bought the line that giving the telephone companies what they want will bring broadband to areas that don't otherwise have it. Of course, it would take AT&T another six years to achieve that goal, which is slightly higher than the 90 percent coverage it was promising just a couple of years ago. And even that 97 percent figure still leaves about one-third of the U.S. territory uncovered.

I briefly discussed the issue with Sierra Club Chairman Carl Pope at Netroots Nation during and after his appearance on a Netroots panel at which he blasted the increasing power granted to corporations by the U.S. Supreme Court, and how the pro-corporate doctrines benefit "a tiny fraction of the electorate."

Apparently, the Sierra Club is willing to make an exception for the telecommunications industry's corporate power. His view is that he believes in universal service from the old days of the regulated monopoly, and that the T-Mobile deal, like the Sierra Club support for weak Net Neutrality, was the best deal they could get. They were willing to sign on to letters to deal away key portions of Net Neutrality, like allowing for "specialized services," and giving up wireless.

Set aside the fact that if AT&T buys T-Mobile, there could well be an unregulated duopoly, or close to it. For the moment, let's concentrate of the idea of accepting a grand compromise, even with some fatal flaws. Let's apply it to a cause dear to the Sierra Club, its "Beyond Coal" campaign. Coal provides half of our electricity and 30 percent of our global-warming pollution, the Sierra Club argues. One could ask the Sierra Club the same question that Pope asked me: "What's your solution to replacing half of the country's energy?" Other than shutting down or preventing coal-fired plants from being built?

How about a compromise? What if Massey Coal said it would only blowup half of a mountain, rather than the whole thing? Would the Sierra Club buy that if there were only half of the flooding and dangerous minerals flooding into a valley in West Virginia?

The Sierra Club, however, is not to blame. They are just following the basic reactions of progressives and Democrats, which is to follow the lead of labor, in this instance the CWA. The Sierra Club is not alone. Labor involvement is the reason Democratic members of Congress will sign a letter advocating a policy based on industrial blackmail that will create a virtual duopoly which would only hurt their constituents. If AT&T doesn't get what it wants, i.e. T-Mobile, then forget about rural coverage and advanced services. Those following the labor lead should ask -- why didn't AT&T spend the $39 billion it wants to spend for T-Mobile on making those improvements up until now? And how about the $25 billion of that total that will go directly to Germany to buy back shares of T-Mobile's parent company?

But what's in it for the CWA? Remember that figure that allowing AT&T to buy T-Mobile will give 20,000 employees "a real opportunity" to form a union. What that number doesn't tell you is that T-Mobile in 2009 was named "one of the 100 best companies to work for" by Fortune magazine, the first telecom company to be so included. Avoiding layoffs and having generous child care subsidies were the reasons they were included.

More to the point, T-Mobile now has about 40,000 employees. So CWA took half of them right off the top, assuming that their partner, job-killing but unionized AT&T, wouldn't keep them around.

The bottom line: for a chance -- just a chance -- to get 20,000 new members, CWA is willing to lead progressive organizations and Democrats into a world in which AT&T and the (nonunion) Verizon Wireless rule the air, creating that almost duopoly, setting up a GSM monopoly, squeezing out smaller players and setting the stage for higher prices, fewer features on phones, and more stringent bandwidth caps. Or just about anything else those two companies want to do as their protectors in Congress (hint: not usually Democrats) will resist regulation to the bitter end claiming the "market" will solve all and that we couldn't possibly have regulation.

It's evident CWA is following an accepted path of enlightened self-interest. It's not so evident why others who should know better follow them.

 

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