When news of AT&T's acquisition of T-Mobile USA broke on Sunday, the immediate reaction among progressives was one of dismay.
"Don't believe the hype: There is nothing about having less competition that will benefit wireless consumers," said S. Derek Turner, research director of the open communications advocacy group Free Press, in a statement. Other progressive consumer groups, including the Consumer Federation of America and the Center for Digital Democracy, were also quick to issue statements denouncing the deal, which, if approved, would create the country's largest cellular carrier.
However, one progressive group cheered the merger: the Communication Workers of America, a labor union whose more than 500,000 members include 150,000 AT&T employees.
"[Union members] in the U.S. will welcome this news since of all the possible partners, AT&T will mean better employment security and a management record of full neutrality toward union membership and a bargaining voice," CWA President Larry Cohen said in a statement shortly after the merger was announced. "For T-Mobile USA workers who want a voice in their workplace, this acquisition can provide a fresh start with T-Mobile management."
For over a decade, CWA has been trying to organize T-Mobile's 26,000 workers. (The American Prospect covered CWA's organizing campaign back in our November issue.) However, CWA alleges that T-Mobile has engaged in heavy-handed anti-union intimidation tactics that have prevented workers from joining a union.
"When we tried to organize a call center in Maine, they just stopped us dead in our tracks with just a brutal intimidation campaign," said New England Area CWA Local 1440 President Don Trementozzi. "They called the police on our organizers when they visited the workplace. They threatened to fire people who supported the union. It was just impossible to get an organizing committee going there."
At AT&T, the Communication Workers of America have succeeded over the decades in winning concessions from management, including an easier path to organizing and a neutrality agreement that would prevent the company from interfering with union drives. If past is prologue, the new AT&T umbrella could be good news for T-Mobile workers.
"When Unicel sold to AT&T, we were able to successfully organize Unicel workers, who had been trying to organize for years, in just 90 days and get them into the contract right away," said Trementozzi. "It's unheard of in the labor movement to organize workers and get them a contract in 90 days, but with the neutrality agreement we were able to do it. It was almost pathetic how easy it was."
The opportunity to organize T-Mobile using a similar neutrality agreement could be a great boon to CWA, which has lost nearly 50,000 members since the recession began in 2007. It could also benefit unions nationwide.
"If heavily unionized AT&T didn't buy T-Mobile, it would be tough for AT&T to compete against non-union Verizon, who had gained a greater market share," said Trementozzi. "If T-Mobile had sold to non-union Sprint, it would have made the situation even worse for AT&T. Now, at least a union company like AT&T can compete against Verizon and not drive unions totally out of the telecom industry."
Some progressive consumer advocates disagree, arguing that unions are putting their own self-interest above the interests of consumers and the country's economic well-being.
"It may create more dues-paying members for CWA, but does it mean it's good for overall job market and the country?" asked Free Press political adviser Joel Kelsey. "Mergers almost always result in layoffs."
This is not the first time CWA has sided with telecoms and upset progressives. Over the summer, progressive groups blasted CWA for endorsing the compromise position of the FCC on net neutrality.
But unions counter all of these charges by arguing that consumer advocacy groups are not properly balancing consumers' rights with the need to build a movement for workers' rights. "We think it's important to put the workers' rights issue on their agenda and into their analysis of positions," said CWA Senior Director of Collective Bargaining and Technology George Kohl. "The future of the labor movement is at stake ... and the strength of the progressive movement as a result."