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Labor Boosted by Proposed Merger

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America's embattled labor movement hasn't had much to celebrate lately, so it's worth noting when a major union welcomes a business mega-merger.

The Communications Workers of America strongly endorsed AT&T's proposed $39 billion acquisition of T-Mobile. Deals this big -- the merger would create the nation's largest mobile-phone carrier, with about 39 percent of the market -- have to run a bruising, multiple-agency regulatory gauntlet. Some consumer groups worry that it will reduce competition in the lucrative telecommunication sector, dampening incentives for innovation and possibly pushing up consumer prices.

No doubt the deal merits close scrutiny. But having one of America's largest private unions (700,000 strong) in its corner can't hurt AT&T's chances.

C.W.A. represents 42,000 AT&T wireless workers and regards the company as reasonably friendly to unions. The merger gives it a better shot at organizing T-Mobile workers in the U.S. and in Germany (the company is owned by Deutsche Telekom, whose stock zoomed after the announcement.) For those workers, being absorbed into AT&T will mean "better employment security and a management record of full neutrality toward union membership and a bargaining voice," said C.W.A. president Larry Cohen.

This rare bit of good news for organized labor follows successful efforts by Republican governors in several states to curtail public workers' right to collective bargaining. Although polls show majorities of Americans are opposed to denying bargaining rights, high profile battles in Wisconsin, Indiana and New Jersey have drawn the public's attention to the adverse impact on state budgets of generous compensation schemes for state employees, especially pension and health care benefits.

This is a huge problem for organized labor, which in recent decades has experienced growth only in the public sector. The picture is especially dismal in the private sector, where less than eight percent of workers are unionized.

If they are going to reverse their long pattern of decline, U.S. labor unions need to redefine their economic role and relevance to American workers in a post-industrial economy. Cohen's statement pointed to a mission that would be good for both U.S. workers and employers: building modern infrastructure to underpin America's ability to win in global markets. "For more than a decade, the United States has continued to drop behind nearly every other developed economy on broadband speed and build out," he said.

In fact, a big national infrastructure push represents common ground on which big labor and big business can meet. In an "odd couple" pairing last week, AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka and Tom Donahue, head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, showed up to endorse a new proposal for a national infrastructure bank. Drafted by a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators including John Kerry, Mark Warner and Kay Baily Hutchinson, the bank would leverage billions of private investments in new transport, energy and water projects.

If labor and business can get behind an ambitious project for "internal national building," our equally polarized political parties surely should be able to follow their example. And that bodes well for an American economic comeback.