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Unions Continue Pushback Against Split Telecom Workforce

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Industry’s growing wireless sector is mostly nonunion—and companies want to keep it that way

The telecommunications company Verizon is seeking concessions from its unionized members in order to shave labor costs and shift more resources to its wireless service.

The Communication Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) represent more than 45,000 employees in the northeastern United States. The unions are currently in negotiations over a new Verizon contract in lieu of a three-year deal that will expire on August 6, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

The negotiations come as telecommunications companies are focusing on expanding wireless technology, an area that has relatively fewer unionized workers than the landline sector. In turn, unions are now looking to expand their presence in the wireless field while fending off concessions in traditional communication services.

Thirty percent of Verizon’s 200,000 employees are unionized, most of whom work in wireline jobs. The company has proposed a plan that would freeze pensions, increase employee healthcare contributions, amend job security and pay provisions for its unionized workers. Verizon says increased competition and declining revenue from the wireline services is the reason for the cuts: wireless revenue from last year increased by 5.1 percent, while its wireline revenue decreased 2.9 percent to $41.2 billion. Verizon Communications Inc. profited $2.5 billion last year.

Unions view the proposal as aggressive. “This is not a company coming to its union employees seeking ways to work together to face the challenges of the future. Their proposals seek to destroy our future,” wrote the CWA on itswebsite. Bob Master, political director for the Communications Workers of America (CWA) District 1, called the contract an “attack on the middle class,” according to New Jersey newspaper The Record.

Workers are planning a July 30 rally at the Verizon’s headquarters in New York City. A walkout also seems possible if an agreement isn’t reached. A July 19 bargaining update posted on the website of IBEW Local 2222 says negotiations with Verizon are ongoing, but also wrote “locals should continue conducting their strike votes.”

Verizon is not the only communications company dealing with labor. With ashrinking workforce in traditional telecom, unions are hoping to organize in the wireless sector.

On Tuesday, a group of technicians in Connecticut became the first unionized T-Mobile employees in the United States after voting to join the CWA-TU. A spokesperson for the union confirmed the workers are employed in the wireless division.

The vote comes after the U.S. management had tried to stifle unionization, the union said, even though the company’s German-based parent, Deutsche Telekom, allows its workers employed in the home country to freely organize.

AT&T acquired T-Mobile recently. The move was supported bysome unions, but drew dismay from consumer groups. And although AT&T and Deutsche Telekom have a strong union presence, it’s not clear if there will be any layoffs due to the merger that is not yet finalized.

As companies compete to update their mobile technology, organized labor, as they have done with T-Mobile, are looking to unionize the growing wireless sector. But U.S-based telecommunication companies seem ambivalent.

A Verizon spokesperson quoted by the Wall Street Journal did not seem receptive. Sprint has been historically nonunion, but the market has changed in the traditional sector. Jobs have declined, costs have been reduced and productivity has increased. As a result, unions will be looking to minimize the wireless-wireline division through more organizing.

This article originally appeared on the Working In These Times blog on July 20, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer and reporter for Kyodo News. He regularly contributes to the In These Times blog covering labor and workplace issues. He lives in New York City.

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German Workers Rally For T-Mobile USA Employees’ Rights

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Image: James ParksMore than 500 workers from ver.di, the German telecommunications workers union, today descended on Deutsche Telekom’s global annual shareholders’ meeting in Cologne  to demand  the company ensure its American employees at T-Mobile USA the same rights enjoyed by its German workforce.

The workers formed a human chain around the meeting venue and released black balloons as a sign of mourning for their U.S. co-workers’ rights.

In Germany, Deutsche Telecom recognizes the union and has a collective bargaining agreement with workers. But at its American subsidiary, T-Mobile USA, management harasses workers who try to join the union, and has implemented a company-wide strategy of refusing to recognize the workers’ choice of a union and collective bargaining rights.

Communications Workers America (CWA) President Larry Cohen, said:

T-Mobile workers must be allowed to choose a union, and the harassment must stop. We thank German workers for standing up for our rights.

“Deutsche Telekom should change its behaviour in the United States as soon as possible. Its global standing is at stake and it should use this chance to improve its reputation,” said ver.di’s Ado Wilhelm.

Philip Jennings, general secretary of UNI Global Union, which brings together unions in the telecoms sector, said “responsible employers don’t act this way.”

We expect better from one of the world’s leading telecom companies with solid industrial relations in its home country.

On March 20, Deutsche Telekom agreed to sell T-Mobile USA to AT&T, which respects workers’ rights to union representation and collective bargaining. The government review of the merger could take a year.

Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), said T-Mobile workers should not have to wait a year to gain their rights.

This article originally appeared in AFL-CIO blog on May 12, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: James Parks’ first encounter with unions was at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. He is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. He also has been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections.

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