Union Pragmatism

Posted on March 25, 2011 by

Labor’s position on the megamerger of AT&T and T-Mobile is a useful example of how unions often don’t fall in line with progressive expectations. 

Because the Communications Workers of American (CWA) has a national contract with AT&T, it is brushing aside arguments that combining these two telecommunications giants would dangerously concentrate economic power. 

I’m with CWA on this one…

…even though the acquisition of T-Mobile by AT&T creates the largest cell phone carrier, reduces competition in the industry and could raise consumer costs. 

Here’s the reason: 

There are tens of thousands of CWA members at AT&T.  The union has been aggressively targeting workers at T-Mobile, which has fiercely resisted unionization.  If the merger goes through, CWA fully expects AT&T’s union neutrality policy to extend to former T-Mobile employees who will then almost certainly be brought into the fold. 

This is the kind of pragmatic institutional decision that unions make all the time if given the opportunity. 

CWA will use its political influence to try to persuade federal regulators that the merger does not violate anti-trust laws. 

You don’t have to like everything CWA does (the union has been denounced, for example, for organizing in the Indian Gaming industry where it allegedly undercuts the jurisdiction and national strategy of Unite Here) to support this important union development in the cell phone industry. 

That’s the American labor movement.  And those who have joined with us thanks to Madison had better get used to our imperfect and sometimes paradoxical ways. 

Another example: 

The Los Angeles labor movement has a reciprocal relationship with many big developers whose projects are union-built and – when completed – offer newly hired employees the option to vote union without management opposition. 

It’s a good deal for workers even if you’re not a fan of downtown L.A.’s new sports, entertainment and hospitality venues.

Comments (2)


  1. rian says:

    U lost me at monopoly? It always turns out bad. Coming from a man who doesn’t believe in absolutes!

  2. John Connolly says:

    When you don’t hold ultimate market (or state) power, working out deals with the Bosses is a tactical necessity for the workers’ movement.

    I don’t always agree with the deals or compromises, but not everyone would agree with mine either. To wit: three examples where my union — AFTRA — has made several tactical-verging-on- strategic agreements with employers on some very big issues …

    1. AFTRA negotiated a long-term uncomfortable alliance with the Recording Industry on sharing digital and international royalties for Recording Artists which has allowed significant — eventually vast — sums of legally required royalty payments to flow to “Rights Holders” of recorded music … statutory royalties enshrined in international law that for decades were held up by squabbling between (primarily) European Collecting Societies and musical “authors” — read “copyright owners” — often 50/50 publishing partnerships imposed on new artists by US and UK recording industry contracts.
    This “shared authorship” gave the recording companies shared-copyright ownership with the actual artists — a little bit better than directors’ actors’ and writers’ “work-for-hire” contracts where the copyright goes 100% to the studio!
    The International Collecting Societies used the shared copyright issue to refuse to properly distribute international royalties to US artists; keeping the dough (and all interest and investment earnings) “in trust” against the day the “confusion” on ownership could be worked out.
    The collecting societies were entities that grew up completely separate and apart from artists’ unions in Europe going back to the late 1940s, so appealing to international solidarity fell on deaf ears.
    AFTRA and the American Federation of Musicians negotiated a deal to break the logjam and let the very real royalty stream begin flowing to artists. This took years of public policy work and negotiations both here in the US and at the World Intellectual Property Organization Treaty negotiations in Geneva.
    One of the pluses in this long fight is that — unlike in Europe and Asia — the US artists’ unions got involved in setting up collecting societies here and play a significant and progressive role in how they function.

    2. Similarly, when CDs and Digital/Web Radio evolved, AFTRA worked with congress to write and pass the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to create required royalties for performances in addition to composer/lyricists — recognizing that digital technology can create unlimited perfect unlicensed “free” duplications of a CD or Master Recording, the DMCA provides for a required royalty from Digital and Web Radio broadcasters. Over-the-Air Broadcasters had since the invention of radio held successfully that broadcast provided a free promotional service to the Recording Industry and Artists, so no royalties should be paid for the reuse of recorded music.
    In order to make sure performers were paid a reasonable wage and to discourage reruns replacing new production. AFTRA did invent Residuals for reuse of live or recorded dramatic, comedic, news and musical programming on radio and later TV.

    During the last decade and more AFTRA has had a very exciting alliance with progressive media democracy forces such as Free Press in trying to stop the Murdochian monopolization of the electronic and print media.

    AFTRA Free Press and other progressive “Netizen” forces may be parting ways however over issues of copyright and Net-Neutrality. The NetNeutrality issue is sometimes hard to understand, but it does involve forcing InterNet Service Providers — often giant companies like ComCast and Verizon — to carry all WebSites equally, preventing the ISPs from creating access tiers and charging WebSites for better placement and visibility — or not carrying them at all. There are clearly Free speech issues in this discussion.

    3. The copyright issue is a bit easier to understand; if copyright goes away then there may well be no guaranteed royalty income that flows from the use of musical or visual work on the Net. Even now of course several generations have grown up thinking that whatever is out there on the Net is and should be “Free”. Except when that product is expropriated without compensation — music or movie downloads for example — it has a direct negative impact not only on the media companies that produced the recording but on the artists who really created the work, by writing, singing, acting or directing it.
    So the modern Netizen impulse and belief that everything “out there” should be free — can have devastating effects on artists’ ability to earn a living from their work.

    So AFTRA is taking a very “go slow” approach on these issues with its progressive friends. And it often puts AFTRA and other unions — like SAG, WGA, AFM, IATSE and DGA — willy-nilly into alliance with big employer groups like RIAA and MPAA on public policy.

    I guess we live in an imperfect world, that sooner or later puts you and your principles in an uncomfortable position having to break bread with the Bad Guys.

    Hell, even the indomitable Twin Cities Trotskyists who led the Teamsters in a brutal but successful 1934 General Strike for union recognition, eventually signed a contract with the (very) nasty Bosses in that town.

    And in capitalist America, a contract is always a compromise … if your’e lucky … even if you’re tough, powerful and smart.

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