Resisting Oligopoly

comcast-time-warner-cable-merger-is-deadComcast spent tons on lobbying and image-burnishing philanthropy while its CEO golfed with President Obama, yet the telecom giant was blocked from carrying out its anti-competitive $45 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable. It’s encouraging to see that large corporations do not always get their way in Washington.

Another good sign came a few days later, when two of the largest semiconductor machinery producers, Applied Materials of the United States and Tokyo Electron of Japan, called off their planned merger after the U.S. Justice Department said the deal would restrict competition. Another problem was that Applied Materials planned to reincorporate in Japan after the acquisition to dodge U.S. taxes.

It would be nice to think that these aborted mergers are signs of an antitrust revival in the United States, but there is more evidence pointing in the opposite direction. Large, competition-inhibiting mergers are being announced all the time.

For example, Teva Pharmaceuticals recently made a $40 billion bid for its generic drug rival Mylan NV, seeking to trump a $28 billion offer Mylan had previously made for a third company, Perrigo. Berkshire Hathaway and Brazil’s 3G Capital, which took over Heinz in 2013, are seeking to merge the company with Kraft Foods. Earlier, Staples announced plans to acquire one of its few remaining competitors, Office Depot.

Last year, AT&T proposed to buy DirecTV for $48 billion, Halliburton offered $34 billion for Baker Hughes, and Reynolds American announced plans to buy competing tobacco company Lorillard for $27 billion. The list could go on.

It remains to be seen whether the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission will block these deals. Chances are that most of them will be allowed to proceed intact or with only limited concessions. The Wall Street Journal reported in March that the FTC, facing pressure from Republicans in Congress, was revising its procedures in a way that might make it easier for deals such as Sysco’s proposed purchase of US Foods, which the agency had challenged, to go through.

Ironically, while U.S. antitrust policy may be weakening, China is beefing up its enforcement. It February, U.S. telecom and chip company Qualcomm was fined the equivalent of $975 million for violating the Chinese anti-monopoly law.

The sad truth is that oligopoly is increasingly the norm in the U.S. economy, and consumers feel the consequences. The low rate of overall inflation has dampened the impact, but the signs are there. As Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times pointed out, the decline of competition in the airline industry through deals such as American’s purchase of US Airways has kept air fares high despite the savings the carriers are enjoying from plummeting fuel costs. The proposed acquisition of Orbitz by Expedia would not help things.

To reverse the troubling trend, what happened with Comcast needs to become the norm rather than the exception.

Comcast’s Other Sins

comcast centerComcast’s audacious proposal to acquire Time Warner Cable and thereby become a cable behemoth has been met with an appropriate degree of skepticism.

Both Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled a company executive at a hearing on the $45 billion acquisition.

There are good reasons to worry about the impact the merger would have on customers in an industry that already imposes inflated prices for what is often substandard service. As consumer advocate Gene Kimmelman put it in his prepared testimony for the hearing:

The merger will even more firmly entrench Comcast as the gatekeeper at the crossroads of Internet, television, and communications innovation. Because the merged company will have both the incentive and ability to thwart development of innovative Internet services that threaten Comcast’s excessively priced offerings across a much broader swath of the market than is true today, this merger must be rejected.

The impact on consumers is not the only cause for concern. The merger would give considerably more power to a company that has a long history of using its clout to mistreat workers and fight unions. Comcast has been forced to moderate its labor practices somewhat, but there is no evidence that it has changed its fundamental stance.

It’s significant that Comcast’s worst union-busting behavior emerged after its last giant cable acquisition — the purchase of AT&T Broadband in 2001. As Jonathan Tasini, then head of American Rights at Work, put it in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times:

Comcast promised to abide by union contracts and bargain in good faith. Instead, it embarked on a carefully orchestrated campaign to destroy the unions. In Detroit, Comcast chopped off more than half the unionized workforce, moving dozens of jobs to a nonunion facility. During organizing drives, Comcast has shelled out large sums to high-priced union-busting law firms and has harshly disciplined union supporters — firing some outright. Numerous charges have been filed against Comcast before the National Labor Relations Board.

This track record prompted the Communications Workers of America to oppose Comcast’s 2004 (ultimately unsuccessful) effort to take over Walt Disney. In a press release the CWA wrote: “Comcast has earned a designation by the AFL-CIO as one of the most aggressively anti-union companies in America, for its intimidation and threats against workers who want union representation. A Comcast vice president in Beaverton, Ore., stated publicly that Comcast is ‘at war to decertify the CWA’ and the company has followed that strategy since it bought AT&T Broadband in 2002.”

That strategy led to decertification votes in more than a dozen cities. An April 2004 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the unionized portion of Comcast’s workforce had fallen to less than five percent. The paper quoted CWA official George Kohl as saying: “We believe Comcast is out to crush unions. It has to do with control and paternalism run amok.”

Also in 2004, American Rights at Work (which later merged with Jobs with Justice) published a report entitled No Bargain: Comcast and the Future of Workers’ Rights in Telecommunications. After documenting how Comcast abused workers and fought unions, the report called on the company to change its ways.

Under pressure from CWA, Comcast apparently did change a bit. The union was able to negotiate decent contracts in places such as Pittsburgh and Detroit. Nonetheless, the union was critical of Comcast’s 2010 move to take over NBC Universal. So far, the CWA has taken a cautious public stance on the Time Warner Cable deal, saying it should be scrutinized but not explicitly opposing or endorsing it.

As an outsider, I am not familiar with the details of Comcast’s current dealings with the CWA or its other major union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Yet the company’s history on labor relations, especially in light of what happened after the AT&T Broadband acquisition, makes me worry about how it would behave after gaining control over an even larger portion of the cable industry.

It is telling that the Comcast official who represented the company in the recent Judiciary Committee hearing, Executive Vice President David L. Cohen, is the same person who led the anti-union campaign a decade ago. ”We take pride in providing a safe, enjoyable and productive work environment,” Cohen told the New York Times in 2005, adding that workers ”do not need to be represented by a union to gain all of the advantages.” Earlier, Cohen was quoted as dismissing critics of the company as “a few disgruntled employees that the union trots out.”

Many companies use the section on employees in their 10-K filings with the SEC to proclaim that they have good relations with their workers. Comcast does not bother to even address the issue in its 10-K. I suspect that Comcast is still at heart a unionbuster and worry that after swallowing Time Warner Cable it would feel freer to let that impulse come to the fore once again.

Striking Back at Verizon

As the U.S. economy teeters, most politicians and mainstream analysts have nothing to offer but the usual counter-productive agenda of reduced public spending, corporate tax cuts and weakening of government regulation of business.

Some of the only helpful initiatives are coming from an institution that much of the American public has been taught to despise: labor unions, especially aggressive ones like the Communications Workers of America.

The strike recently launched by CWA and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers against telecom giant Verizon Communications has significance that goes far beyond the terms of their contract negotiations. It is one of the only arenas in which an effort is being made to shore up rather than erode the living standards of American workers—living standards that are supposed to be the backbone of an economy that we are constantly told is based on consumer spending. Also adding to the importance of the walkout is that it is targeting an employer that is emblematic of much that is wrong with corporate America today.

That starts with the evolution of the company. Verizon started out as Bell Atlantic, one of the regional operating companies, or Baby Bells, that resulted from the 1984 dismantling of the old AT&T monopoly. Taking apart Ma Bell was supposed to beget a new era of competition in the telephone business, but instead, some of the stronger Baby Bells focused on acquiring their rivals. Bell Atlantic took over NYNEX in 1997, and a few years later it bought the large non-Bell local phone company GTE. Seeking to downplay its origins, the combined corporation adopted the portmanteau name Verizon, a combination of “veritas,” the Latin word for truth, and “horizon.”

Verizon is now one of two firms that dominate traditional phone service in the United States. The other is the new AT&T, the name taken by the other voracious former Baby Bell, SBC Communications, in 2005. In the end, the dismantling of Ma Bell simply replaced a monopoly with a duopoly.

This concentration of ownership has carried over into the wireless realm, which in the U.S. is now largely controlled by subsidiaries of Verizon and AT&T (Verizon Wireless is a joint venture with Britain’s Vodafone, which owns 45 percent).

Verizon has compounded the negative effects of its bloated market share by fighting the extension of union rights to its wireless operation. From the end of the Second World War to its break-up, the Bell System was strongly unionized, and phone company jobs were among the most secure and best-paying blue-collar positions in the private sector. Things became more contentious after the creation of the Baby Bells—there were widespread strikes in 1989 over company attempts to curtail healthcare benefits—but workers in the core wireline business retained their union protections.

Workers at Verizon Wireless, on the other hand, have been struggling for the past decade to achieve such protections. The company has employed all the usual dirty tricks of union-busting, including surveillance, misinformation and intimidation of activists. As American Rights at Work noted in a 2007 report, Verizon also shut down call centers where organizing was taking place and moved the operations to states with anti-union “right-to-work” laws. The National Labor Relations Board found the company guilty of violating federal labor law for disciplining a worker for union organizing.

Rather than improving working conditions at Verizon Wireless, Verizon seems intent on lowering those in its wireline business. The current strike was prompted by management demands for a long list of major contract concessions concerning pensions, sick leave, healthcare and job security. Verizon also wants to tie wages more closely to individual job performance, an arrangement that is typical of non-union workplaces. CWA and IBEW are accurately charging the company with trying to undo half a century of advances in worker rights.

Verizon’s position should be seen as an assault not only on its 45,000 unionized employees but on the entire economy. If management gets its way, some people will find themselves transferring from Verizon’s payroll to the unemployment rolls, and those who remain would have less disposable income.

Its labor practices are not the only way Verizon harms the economy. As Citizens for Tax Justice points out, Verizon is among those large companies that find ways to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. For the past two years, its federal tax rate has been negative, meaning that it is getting rebates from the Treasury—totaling more than $1 billion—despite enjoying profits of more than $10 billion in each of those years.

Verizon also plays the tax avoidance game at the state and local level. For example, it has received tens of millions in subsidies in New Jersey, and last year it pressured authorities in New York to award it more than $500 million in property tax abatements and other tax breaks for a data center it was planning to build near Niagara Falls. This was on top of $96 million in electricity subsidies. The company cancelled the plan after a lawsuit was filed by a local resident.

In addition to mistreating workers and taxpayers, Verizon has apparently found time to cheat its customers. Last year, Verizon Wireless had to pay a record $25 million to settle Federal Communications Commission charges that it charged 15 million cell phone customers unauthorized fees. The company also agreed to provide $52 million in refunds.

A sign seen on a picket line reads: VERIZON IS KILLING MIDDLE CLASS AMERICA. If this strike is successful, it will send a strong message to all corporate assassins that U.S. workers will not roll over and die.

A Good Merger for a Change

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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