11/30/2011 10:39 am ET Updated Jan 30, 2012

Regulators: Listen to Workers

AT&T is a big company, which perhaps explains why federal regulators are ganging up to block its proposed merger with T-Mobile. Big must be bad, right?

That's certainly the view of consumer advocacy groups, which routinely oppose business mergers as threats to competition. They seem to have the ear of the Federal Communications Commission, which announced last week that it would join the Justice Department in opposing the deal, citing concerns about job losses and higher consumer prices.

But there's another important group of stakeholders that regulators should be listening to: AT&T's workers. They are urging the government to take a broader view of the merger's potential impact on U.S. investment and competitiveness.

At a time of shrinking private sector union membership, it's worth noting that the company's 42,000 wireless workers are represented by the Communications Workers of America (CWA). The union issued a report this month strongly supporting the company's acquisition of T-Mobile as a spur to innovation and a job-creator.

Such arguments merit attention, if only because it's not often that you find a successful U.S. company in synch with its unionized workforce. Beyond that, however, there are compelling economic reasons for regulators to start looking at proposed mergers through the eyes of America's producers, not just its consumers.

President Obama, fresh from a tour of the Asia-Pacific, articulated them in a recent radio address. "Over the last decade, we became a country that relied too much on what we bought and consumed," he said. "We racked up a lot of debt, but we didn't create many jobs at all." Reviving U.S. competitiveness, he said, will require Americans to focus more on building things than buying them. Obama also called for "restoring America's manufacturing might, which is what helped us build the largest middle-class in history."

Opponents say CWA backs the merger because it has its eyes on T-Mobile's workers, who aren't organized. But the union's analysis of the $39 billion deal emphasizes AT&T's plans to boost capital investment in the wireless broadband sector. It cites think tank estimates that such investment could produce up to 96,000 new jobs, not including another 5,000 jobs the company promises to bring back to the United States from overseas.

AT&T has said it will merge its networks with those of T-Mobile, and invest an additional $8 billion to expand its 4G LTE wireless broadband infrastructure. It also has pledged to retain T-Mobile's non-managerial workers. The CWA report asserts that, absent the merger, T-Mobile is headed toward extinction. Having been cut loose by its parent company, Deutsch Telecom, it lacks the capital to acquire spectrum and build its own 4G network.

Opponents of the merger--including AT&T's competitors as well as consumer groups--say the merger would give the telecom giant too much market power and lead to higher prices. Regulators ought to carefully weigh such claims. But as a forthcoming PPI report argues, mergers and acquisitions among dynamic, high-tech companies often have the effect of spurring more innovation. In the fiercely competitive telecommunications sector, prices for wireless services--voice, text, and data--have been trending downward, even as quality of these services has improved dramatically.

Even so, low consumer prices aren't the only public interest at stake here. More important is expanding investment--in technological innovation, a highly skilled workforce and world-class infrastructure. This is the only way to make U.S. companies and workers more competitive in global markets that does not entail lowering our standard of living.

As the Progressive Policy Institute has documented here, the telecom sector is leading a dynamic wave of innovation in mobile telephony and broadband that is creating good jobs in the United States. That's no mean achievement at a time when unemployment is stuck at 9 percent--and about twice that if you take into account people who have given up looking for jobs.

While other corporations chase cheap labor by moving production offshore, we have dubbed communications companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast "Investment Heroes" because they are making huge bets on the American economy. Surely that's something government regulators ought to factor into their decisions.

Our country needs a new model for economic growth that emphasizes production over consumption, saving over borrowing, and exports over imports. Such a shift is essential not only to rebuild the great American job machine, but also to rebalance a global economy that has become overly dependent on U.S. consumers.

It's time once again for America to be a global center for production--and we need federal regulators to get with the program too.

This item is cross-posted at the Progressive Policy Institute.