AT&T and T-Mobile: The Other Side of the Coin

As Nancy Scola notes in her article on AT&T’s proposed purchase of T-Mobile from Deutsche Telekom, “it’s not AT&T’s right alone to define its merger with T-Mobile.” The merger, obviously, will have major consequences for American phone users.

But those are not the only consequences such a proposed merger will have. For one thing, the choice isn’t between T-Mobile being purchased by AT&T and T-Mobile not being purchased at all, thereby continuing to offer its current range of services. Deutsche Telekom has been determined to sell T-Mobile, and if it didn’t sell to AT&T, it was going to sell to Sprint, which would have raised a different set of questions about concentration in the industry and the range and quality of available services.

Without at this time entering into the discussion of how the two possible mergers would impact consumers, there’s another range of possible consequences that’s easier to predict, and that is the effects the two possible mergers would have on T-Mobile 26,000 technicians and call-center employees. T-Mobile has been unabashedly hostile to the efforts of its workers to join a union – a position shared by the management at Sprint. At AT&T, however, management has been neutral in worker organizing campaigns, and officials at the Communications Workers of America anticipate a similarly neutral stance towards organizing T-Mobile if the AT&T purchase goes through.

In the Prospect’s December 2010 issue, a special report that examined American unions’ global alliances featured an article by Cornell University professor Lance Compa, who had just authored a report for Human Rights Watch on the treatment of American workers by foreign companies with American-based subsidiaries, dealing with the efforts of T-Mobile workers to join unions. Even though Deutsche Telekom had exemplary relations with its union (ver.di) in Germany, wrote Compa,

. . .top managers at the company's U.S. subsidiary, T-Mobile USA, warned frontline supervisors to report ‘newly developing social relationships,’ ‘employees engaging in group behavior,’ and ‘employees who talk a lot about rights’ as danger signs of possible union activity.

One day after supporters of Communications Workers of America at T-Mobile's call center in Allentown, Pennsylvania, handed out flyers to workers exiting the parking lot (standing on public property, as was their legal right), ‘the general manager called everybody into focus groups, about 15 or 20 people at a time,’ T-Mobile worker Tammy Todora told HRW [Human Rights Watch]. ‘He was putting the fear into everyone's head about the union, that the union would create problems.’

‘People were too scared to ask questions,’ Angela Joseph, another T-Mobile employee, told HRW, ‘like he would think they were against him. We were afraid to even learn about the union.’

T-Mobile went too far when managers told employees to report on each other's union activity. In the wake of an investigation by the NLRB, T-Mobile posted a notice promising not to ‘promulgate, maintain, or enforce rules that ask or require you to report to us about your co-workers' support for, or activities on behalf of’ the union. But a notice on bulletin boards cannot overcome the effects of management's driven-home message, reminiscent of the refrain in a song by The Police: ‘Every move you make ... every step you take, I'll be watching you.’

The absorption of T-Mobile into AT&T, it’s clear, will end a range of abusive practices that T-Mobile’s current management inflicts on its employees, as well as raising those employees’ wages and benefits – something that isn’t happening almost anyplace else within America’s working class. That’s one consequence of this merger on which we can count.

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