Why should progressives care about the proposed merger of AT&T with T-Mobile? Because AT&T is the ONLY unionized wireless company in the country and the merger would ensure that 20,000+ T-Mobile workers would have the chance to join the 43,000 currently unionized AT&T Mobility employees with decent wages and legal protections on the job.
There are a range of other likely benefits from the merger, from a projected deployment of high-speed broadband to over 97% of the population and better service for existing AT&T and T-Mobile customers from more efficient integration of available spectrum from both companies. But stepping away from the impact on consumers, which is being endlessly debated, progressives should be focusing as well on the massive gain for workers rights from the merger.
A Company That Has Worked with Its Union Employees: In an era when workers rights are on the chopping block even in the public sector, this is a chance to strengthen labor rights in the private sector, where a multi-decade war on the labor movement has decimated most unions. AT&T has actually been and remained a unique employer, agreeing to stay neutral when workers seek to organize unions in various units and recognizing the union whenever a majority of those workers sign cards requesting it. Based on this model approach to employee rights, American Rights at Work, which led the drive for the Employee Free Choice Act, picked AT&T as a model employer in its 2007 "Partnerships that Work" list where they wrote: "AT&T and its unions serve as allies and business partners working to advance the success of the company."
When AT&T has acquired new units in recent years, the workers have been able to choose to join the union without the usual employer intimidation that is constant in other firms. In fact, unionized workers at AT&T's Mobility wireless division grew from 9300 members in 2001 to 43,000 today, most of that growth during the heart of the Bush era. \ When AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson was asked about workers rights in an investor conference call about the proposed T-Mobile merger, he said:
"We have with the CWA the Communication Workers of America] a card check/neutrality agreement so if those employees decide they want to be represented by the CWA that process is there ... In fact you saw that with the AT&T Wireless deal. You saw the CWA begin to represent those employees in fairly short order. That's how that process will work out."
Can you imagine that statement coming from other company executives? In an era when Boeing is trying to bust its unions by opening non-union production lines in South Carolina, Wal-Mart routinely intimidates its employees seeking a voice on the job, and a host of other employers wage endless day-to-day attacks on labor rights, this merger is one of the few opportunities where tens of thousands of workers at a place like T-Mobile will be able to ask to have a union recognized without risking the loss of their jobs.
The Anti-Union Alternatives: Right now, workers at T-Mobile face a complete atmosphere or fear and intimidation. On top of the normal threats of being fired if they form a union, T-Mobile workers were told by the company that they would be punished if they said anything negative about the company even on their personal Facebook page. This led to charges before the National Labor Relations Board, which were just recently settled with the company being required as part of the settlement to tell employees they actually did have free speech rights on their own social networking pages.
With the parent of T-Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, looking to pull out of the U.S. market, the possibility looms that if AT&T does not acquire T-Mobile, the company might be merged with the even more viciously anti-union Sprint Nextel. Sprint has a long history of being arguably the most anti-worker company in the telecom industry, racking up multiple NLRB charges in repeated organizing campaigns. Notoriously, Sprint even shut down a whole subsidiary in San Francisco called La Conexion Familiar (the Family Connection), which sold long-distance service to the Spanish-speaking community, when those workers voted for a union. With Sprint's majority ownership of telecom company Clearwire, a merged T-Mobile-Sprint would create a viciously anti-union gorilla controlling more spectrum than any other firm in the industry. So having T-Mobile workers land with AT&T is all the more important given that alternative.
Why Protecting Labor Rights in Telecom Matters: Strengthening the labor movement in a major private sector industry is important all by itself, but what makes the 43,000 unionized wireless workers at AT&T -- hopefully to be joined by the 20,000+ T-Mobile workers legally eligible to join a union -- is that they are one of the few unionized outposts in the growing high-technology sector. The labor movement needs to expand in that sector and AT&T Mobility can be a model for how a union in a technology company can work with its employer both to protect workers rights and build out new technology for customers.
Also, notably, AT&T's wireless unionized workforce is heavily southern in a country where few workers in the South have ever had a chance to unionized. AT&T's corporate headquarters are in Texas, reflecting its origin as the Southwestern Bell "baby bell," which went on to acquire other telephone companies around the country, including AT&T long distance (from which it borrowed a new name). With thousands of southern wireless workers joining the union, this has meant that the telecom industry has actually been a beacon of union success in a region notoriously hostile to labor.
Progressives Should Stand with Labor on AT&T-T-Mobile Merger: A number of consumer groups have argued against the merger as potentially harming consumers and competition. I'll write more on this in a future column, but these consumer worries seem overwrought.
Post-merger, AT&T will still be a minority player in the wireless world. The large majority of the wireless industry and, unfortunately, the majority of workers in the industry will be in the remaining non-union companies, all looking to undercut AT&T at the expense of their own workers' rights.
And competition in the cell phone industry, if anything, is exploding. Right now, anyone with an AT&T iPhone, for example, can bypass AT&T's own phone plan to make free Skype phone calls, use Facebook's Beluga texting service as an alternative to AT&T's own texting plan and even bypass AT&T's dataplans with wi-fi at home, at work or at coffee shops all over. Hundreds of apps are appearing on smartphones every day to compete with services previously only available from the wireless companies themselves.
When you contrast hypothetical competition worries with the concrete gains in workers rights for tens of thousands of T-Mobile workers, it's hard to argue this is a close call for progressives. This is one merger pro-labor progressives should be lining up to support.
Disclosure: Nathan Newman has consulted on technology issues with the Communication Workers of America, which supports the merger. His views in his columns are his own.