A Good Merger for a Change

March 24th, 2011 by Phil Mattera

AT&T’s proposed $39 billion acquisition of its smaller cell-phone rival T-Mobile has been widely criticized as anti-competitive and bad for consumers. Normally, I would be joining in such a chorus, but this is a special case.

Giant mergers are usually bad news not only for consumers but also for workers, especially if they happen to be unionized. Acquisitions are typically followed by layoffs and sometimes by efforts to bust unions at the firm being purchased. This was seen, for instance, after the acquisition of Northwest Airlines by Delta, which has been accused of intimidating flight attendants and other Northwest workers into decertifying their unions last year.

A very different dynamic is at work in the T-Mobile/AT&T deal. This is a rare instance in which the acquiring company has a vastly better labor relations record than the target.

Let’s start with T-Mobile. The cell phone provider, owned by Deutsche Telekom, has aggressively opposed an organizing drive launched by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) after the German company entered the U.S. market a decade ago. The company’s anti-union crusade, not widely reported in the mainstream media, has employed the usual techniques of targeting workers with propaganda, misinformation, captive meetings and warnings that unionization would lead to job losses.

What makes T-Mobile’s practices all the more egregious is that Deutsche Telekom has good relations with unions in Germany. It is one of numerous European companies that operate under a global double standard: cooperating with unions at home while fighting them tooth and nail in the United States. It was one of those firms singled out in a report issued last year by Human Rights Watch with the title A Strange Case: Violations of Workers’ Freedom of Association in the United States by European Multinational Corporations.

The report charges that “T-Mobile USA’s harsh opposition to workers’ freedom of association in the  United States betrays Deutsche Telekom’s purported commitment to social responsibility, impedes constructive dialogue with employee representatives, and in several cases, has violated ILO and OECD labor and human rights standards.”

These findings reinforced the conclusions of an earlier report written by John Logan for the American Rights at Work Education Fund.

Consider, by contrast, the case of AT&T, which in its current incarnation is the result of the 2006 recombination of various parts of the old Bell system that had been broken up in 1984. Its mobile phone business is what was previously known as Cingular Wireless.

Before the creation of the new AT&T, Cingular had adopted a policy of strict neutrality with regard to union organizing drive—the stance that the law requires but which is rarely adhered to by U.S. employers. That policy carried over into AT&T, which in 2007 was honored by American Rights at Work for its enlightened labor practices. A report issued by the group at the time quoted an AT&T executive as saying that the company “has long taken pride in our cooperative and respectful relationship with the unions that represent our employees.”

In keeping with this position, AT&T recently told a reporter from BNA’s Labor Relations Week (subscribers only) that it would maintain strict neutrality regarding union organizing after acquiring T-Mobile. This means that an estimated 23,000 T-Mobile employees would have an excellent chance of finally gaining union representation.

It is thus no surprise that CWA and the AFL-CIO have voiced support for the merger. This should not be viewed as a matter of narrow self-interest. The remarkable response to Wisconsin’s attack on union rights has revived the old labor solidarity principle that an injury to one is an injury to all. A corollary to that is that a boon to the rights of one group of workers is a boon to all.

The achievement of collective bargaining rights by 20,000-plus T-Mobile employees would be one of the largest labor gains in the U.S. private sector in many years and could serve as an important lesson about the willingness of workers to embrace unions when management thuggery is taken out of the picture.

Also keep in mind that if AT&T does not acquire T-Mobile, it might end up in the hands of the other industry giant, Verizon Wireless, which also has a dismal record on labor relations.

All this is not to discount the concerns of consumer groups. The fact that AT&T is union-friendly does not give it a pass in other areas. It wouldn’t hurt if the CWA works with consumer groups to be sure that AT&T does not abuse its bigger position in the market.

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