Going Global at T-Mobile: German Union Members Seek Better Treatment for U.S. Wireless Workers
When telecom technician Werner Schonau came to Nashville last February, it wasn’t for a fun-filled vacation, inspired by some Teutonic affection for country music. Instead, Schonau, an elected member of the works council at Deutsche Telekom (DT) in Neunkirchen, was part of a fact-finding mission that included twelve other German workers, union leaders, and parliamentarians.
In Nashville, this foreign delegation, organized by Germany’s largest union, ver.di, by-passed the Grand Old Opry and went directly to the customer service center operated by T-Mobile, the nationwide wireless carrier wholly-owned by DT. In a pattern that was repeated at other stops on their U.S. labor rights tour, the Germans tried to meet with T-Mobile workers in non-work areas during non-work times, only to be barred by company managers and private security guards at every facility.
In Frisco, Texas, call center supervisors acted like kindergarten teachers, hurriedly closing all the window blinds to prevent customer service reps from seeing those gathered outside, under a union banner. The center director sent his entire staff an email reassuring them that this attempted European invasion was just a “publicity effort.” He also re-iterated the company’s longstanding position that, in the U.S., “it is better for both T-Mobile employees and our business to maintain a direct working relationship between management. The vast majority of our employees have chosen not be represented by a union.”
Where Schonau comes from, seventy-five percent of the parent company’s workforce is union-represented, including all T-Mobile technicians, retail sales people, and customer service reps. Thanks to Germany’s sixty-year old system of “co-determination” — a product of U.S. occupation after World War II — telecom workers there maintain a “direct working relationship” with management through local and national works councils, plus elected labor representation on the company’s Supervisory Board, equivalent to the board of directors in U.S. firms. The German government — headed, currently, by a conservative prime minister — even owns thirty-two percent of DT’s stock.
Despite interference by local management last winter, the Deutsche Telekom delegation was able to hold rallies, press conferences, and after-work meetings with many T-Mobile workers who have become fellow union supporters within the same global firm. Over the last two years, about 1,000 have signed up to become members of TU, an unusual cross-border organization jointly sponsored by ver.di and the Communications Workers of America (CWA). In Connecticut, TU has already won bargaining rights and a first contract for fifteen T-Mobile workers — out of 25,000 thought to be union eligible — after eleven years of international campaigning against the company’s union busting.
Schonau says that learning about T-Mobile’s resistance to unionization, plus the high levels of job stress and insecurity faced by its U.S. workforce, “moved me deeply, even made me angry.” In a well-documented post-trip report, (available at: http://cwafiles.org/tmobile/201209-veri-di-englishfinal.pdf), Schonau and his fellow travelers expressed shock and dismay at the wireless-worker abuse they discovered in the land of the free and home of the brave.
What disturbed Schonau most was the “degrading” practice known, in T-Mobile lingo, as “decision time.” As Schonau reported, “Before an employee is threatened with dismissal for alleged ‘poor performance,’ he or she has to go home, sometimes write an essay, but always return to his/her supervisor to describe ‘why the company should keep me, why I want to keep working at the company.’ The supervisor will then decide whether he/she stays or leaves.”
Schonau found this exercise of arbitrary power, by first-line supervisors, to be “absolutely unbelievable.” DT’s disciplinary procedures in Germany include the right to union representation and a fair hearing. Lay-offs can’t occur without a lengthy process of negotiation and guaranteed eligibility for jobless benefits that are much more generous than unemployment insurance anywhere in the U.S.
As a longtime T-Mobile technician in Germany, Schonau was “always proud to be an employee there.” But, now, he says, “I have my doubts regarding the company. That the company can treat people like that — I guess it’s just because they can. We need to fight this behavior by management in Germany and around the world. It is unacceptable!”
Germany’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
That message, much appreciated by CWA and pro-union T-Mobile workers, has been delivered by two-million member ver.di, publicly and within Deutsche Telekom, for more than a decade. Unfortunately, DT is a modern-day Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — mild-mannered and well-behaved at home, but hostile and aggressive in its labor relations abroad. The protracted struggle to get a major German employer to adhere to the higher labor standards of Western Europe when operating in the low- road environment of the U.S. illustrates many of the challenges facing other cross-border union campaigns, targeting similar firms.
DT is a global telecom giant with a presence in more than thirty countries. It gained entry to the U.S. wireless market twelve years ago, after acquiring VoiceStream Communications, a past foe of CWA organizing. T-Mobile has since become the fourth largest American cellular company, after heavily unionized AT&T, and the almost entirely non-union Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel. It has a workforce of about 35,000, more than thirty-three million customers, $20 billion a year in revenue, and sales that currently amount to twenty-five percent of the parent company’s worldwide total.
In 2000, some American conservatives opposed the VoiceStream take-over because of the German government’s continuing role in Deutsche Telekom. The firm’s partial public ownership was cited as a possible threat to the security of our national telecommunications network. Being internationally-minded, both the CWA and AFL-CIO went to bat for DT in Washington. Organized labor urged Congress, the Clinton and then Bush Administrations, and the Federal Communications Commission to approve the VoiceStream purchase.
In his personal lobbying then-AFL-CIO president John Sweeney praised DT’s enlightened and cooperative approach to labor-management relations. He noted that its practices stood “in stark contrast to the behavior of U.S. firms which actively fight workers’ efforts to improve their lives.” Then or later, DT proclaimed its respect for International Labor Organization (ILO) standards for securing “rights at work through collective bargaining” and pledged, in its own “Social Charter,” to recognize “legitimate employee representation.” The company’s CEO at the time, Ron Summer, personally promised then CWA president Morton Bahr that DT would apply German standards of labor relations to its U.S. workforce.
Once the sale of VoiceStream was approved by federal regulators and the business rebranded as T-Mobile, DT’s U.S. managers proceeded according to a different maxim: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” As a result, there has been very little German-style “social partnering” with American labor since then. Instead, T-Mobile has invested heavily in a non-stop program of “union avoidance” more typical of homegrown southern union busters like Arkansas-based Wal-Mart.
Creating Fear at Work
T-Mobile’s ensuing unfair labor practices have been well documented in various National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) proceedings and reports by Human Rights Watch, American Rights at Work (ARAW), and the Trade Union Advisory Committee of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.
One initial bad sign was DT’s hiring of the Burke Group, a notorious union-busting consultant, to help defeat wireless-worker organizing in England seven years ago. Similar anti-union lawyers or consulting firms have been used, on a regular basis, to prepare all T-Mobile USA supervisors for their role in monitoring, reporting, and actively discouraging any signs of organizing activity.
As San Francisco State University Professor John Logan found in his study for ARAW, entitled “Lowering the Bar or Setting the Standard?,” local managers “have deliberately and systematically instilled fear in their workforce, engaging in repeated incidents of anti-union harassment and intimidation throughout the country.” In 2005, Logan reports, Union Network International (UNI), a global federation of telecom and other service sector unions, interceded with top DT officials in Germany. UNI’s then general secretary Phil Jennings even announced that a breakthrough was impending, in the form of a new global agreement by DT that “there will be no more intimidation; no bullying; and no firing of people that stand up and decide to join the union.”
Seven years later, DT still has not signed any organizing rights deal with UNI and, according to Logan, “its anti-union policy in the United States stands out as the single major obstacle in the path of such an agreement.”
Other Industry Models
In other market settings during the same period, some European-based firms have made different calculations than T-Mobile about the cost and benefits of facilitating rather than resisting unionization. In 2004, for example, the Teamsters and Service Employees enlisted the help of the British Transport and General Workers to persuade First Group, based in Scotland, that it needed to align its behavior in the U.S. with its global mission statement about “corporate social responsibility,” which (like similar DT documents) references international human and labor rights standards.
First Group is the U.K.’s largest rail and bus transportation company. Its subsidiary, First Student, is the biggest operator of privately contracted school bus services in the U.S. and employs a workforce there of 60,000, which it initially tried to keep entirely non-union.
The First Group campaign was a multi-year effort, involving public protests, negative publicity, and legislative inquiries on both sides of the Atlantic. In the U.S., SEIU and the Teamsters tried to demonstrate that labor’s local political clout and community allies could be deployed to help or hurt First Student when it was bidding for new contracts with school boards around the country. Brandishing carrot and stick, labor first obtained a “neutrality” pledge that was often violated and proved to be unenforceable. So the joint union agitation and pressure continued.
In 2008, stronger organizing rights language was negotiated. Since then, 20,000 First Student bus drivers and other workers have voted to be represented by the Teamsters (and other labor organizations, as the agreed upon recognition procedure is not tied to a single union). In 2011, First Student and the Teamsters even agreed on a “master contract,” which has helped to raise wage and benefit standards in IBT-represented bargaining unions throughout the U.S.
An AT&T Solution?
In the very different setting of the U.S. wireless industry, where the largest union lacks similar political leverage, large-scale organizing has been possible only at the firm now known as AT&T Mobility. Under CWA’s “card check and neutrality” agreement with AT&T, which took many years of struggle to achieve, management has recognized union card-signing majorities in many mutually agreed-upon bargaining units. The American Arbitration Association (AAA) expedites the card count and then certifies the results. AT&T Mobility supervisors are not allowed to interfere with union committee building or card-signing activity, as T-Mobile managers routinely do. Management must provide CWA with employee information and workplace access that are beyond the bare minimum obtainable under NLRB election rules.
In one eighteen-month period in 2005–6, twenty thousand new CWA members were recruited, nearly doubling the size of the union’s total wireless membership, after AT&T Mobility, then known as Cingular, acquired a national competitor. Per its agreement, CWA was able to extend the Cingular organizing rights agreement to cover that firm’s previously nonunion workforce. If CWA had been forced to petition for NLRB elections instead, and local-level management had continued to resist unionization, many call center and retail store workers now in CWA would have remained outside the union.
With a repeat of this merger-assisted organizing in mind, CWA strongly supported AT&T’s proposed acquisition of T-Mobile two years ago. The union argued that this $39 billion deal was good for workers and consumers, citing AT&T’s pledge to bring 5,000 customer service jobs back to the U.S. that T-Mobile had outsourced overseas. Unfortunately, AT&T’s take-over bid was rejected, on anti-trust grounds, by the Obama Administration. Some consumer groups regarded this as a great victory but it was no boon for “the good union jobs in the wireless industry” that CWA was seeking to protect and create.
However, just the prospect of an AT&T-T-Mobile merger led to a sudden flurry of organizing among cellular technicians in the northeast. In the summer of 2011, T-Mobile technicians actually won a representation election in one of three contested units in Connecticut and New York. After signing up majorities in all three groups, union organizers withdrew their election petition in upstate New York, were defeated nine to six on Long Island, and won by a margin of eight to seven in Connecticut. In the NYC-area unit, T-Mobile management dragged out the Board’s unit determination hearings for four days. The actual vote was then delayed for another ten months while the NLRB considered and finally rejected the company’s weighty legal claim that “TU” — the union entity backed by T-Mobile workers on their signed authorization cards — didn’t qualify as a “labor organization” under the National Labor Relations Act.
Meanwhile, T-Mobile flew in top HR officials to lavish attention on the small number of techs involved, wooing them with free dinners, Mets game tickets, picnics, barbecues, and more costly bribes like new trucks, raises, and promotions. The long delayed election lost on Long Island occurred right after the merger with AT&T was scuttled, a case of bad timing made even worse.
With the deus ex machina of T-Mobile amalgamation with AT&T no longer on the horizon, ver.di stepped up its engagement with CWA's organizing rights campaign. Last March, both unions paid for a full-page ad in The New York Times criticizing German companies with wayward subsidiaries in the U.S. In this high-profile appeal, a distinguished group of labor law academics and former government officials in Germany urged multiple firms, including T-Mobile, to respect workers’ freedom of association and embrace collective bargaining. Among the signers were representatives of all four major German political parties, spanning the left, center, and right.
Later that same month, T-Mobile laid-off 3,300 workers and closed seven call centers in six states. To add insult to this injury, the company then tried to prevent its former employees from qualifying for trade adjustment assistance (TAA), even though they were direct casualties of T-Mobile's expanded overseas outsourcing.
A TAA Victory
CWA immediately sought a U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) ruling that these displaced workers were eligible for TAA benefits, which include extended unemployment checks, subsidized COBRA coverage, job retraining help, and other allowances. In July, 2012, based on evidence gathered by T-Mobile activists, the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, and CWA researchers like Tony Daley, the DOL found that the “foreign country services” utilized by management to handle more domestic customer calls “contributed importantly to worker separations at T-Mobile USA.” (The Solidarity Center helped develop information sources within the overseas call centers where T-Mobile work was moved.) In one internal memo, CWA estimated that if all eligible U.S. workers availed themselves of this great legal victory, the “total benefits per worker would exceed $72,000 over two years for a total of $244 million.”
T-Mobile’s shifting of work to Honduras, Guatemala, and the Philippines, followed by its Scrooge-like stance on TAA benefits, boosted the union’s standing in surviving customer service centers. “All of those people who didn’t pay attention to the union before were forced to acknowledge its positive role,” Daley says. The DOL’s T-Mobile case decision was the largest single TAA determination involving the service sector, and an important precedent for the future.
Back in Germany, a report in Der Spiegel, the mass circulation newsweekly, accused T-Mobile officials of submitting false information to the DOL to thwart TAA approval.” A headline in the Suddeutsche Zeitung declared, “U.S. Department accuses T-Mobile of lying.” Ver.di leader Lothar Schroder noted that the company had “lied to its employees and to the pubic” as well.
In the summer of 2012, with ver.di representatives at the bargaining table, CWA Local 1298 finally negotiated a first contract for T-Mobile techs in Connecticut — ratified just in time to avert a management-backed decertification vote. “The only reason we got that contract is because of the Germans,” asserts CWA Organizer Tim Dubnau. “In other parts of the country, there has been enough juice from Germany to discourage the firing of more workers for union activity.”
Unfortunately, the initial agreement in Connecticut consists of little more than the existing T-Mobile employee handbook — signed by both parties — with a grievance and arbitration procedure attached. “We had no power to get anything more,” one local union negotiator lamented.
Strengths of the Campaign
According to Daley and other CWA activists, their union’s partnership with ver.di has several distinctive features. These include its durability, the progressive deepening of the bi-lateral relationship between the two unions, and the unusual degree of rank-and-file engagement and direct contact that has resulted at T-Mobile.
CWA has no international affairs director because its current president, Larry Cohen, plays that role himself. This lack of delegation has an upside, however. Cohen’s many trips to Germany and extensive personal involvement in the campaign have been critical to forging strong personal ties with ver.di officials like Schroder. Cohen also worked closely with top-level German union leaders during his activist stint as president of UNI’s telecom division between 2000 and 2007.
One weakness of many well-intentioned global campaigns is that cross-border contacts are limited to the officialdom on either side, like the four full-time staffers that CWA has working on the campaign. International union “solidarity” is too often demonstrated just by attending conferences, making speeches, passing resolutions, issuing press releases, and engaging in “on-line” activity, at best. Meanwhile, not enough organizational resources are devoted to driving things down to the shop-floor level, so direct exchanges can take place between working members. When that difficult work is done, over a period of many years, there’s a far better chance that the solidarity campaign being waged will more accurately reflect the day- to- day concerns of workers and their willingness to take risks and escalate the struggle as needed.
To supplement its on-going exchanges between rank-and-file delegations, TU has used an on-line forum to facilitate regular information sharing between T-Mobile employees in each country (See http://weworkbettertogether.org/ pages/about). Unionized call centers in Germany have been encouraged to adopt a counterpart facility in the U.S. In Tennessee, three hundred T-Mobile call center workers are now twinned with customer service reps who work in Dusseldorf; others in Charleston, S.C. maintain regular contact with ver.di members in Berlin.
Participants in these “sister call center” relationships use the internet, conference calls, and a shared shop newsletter to keep in touch and coordinate activity. “Hello Dusseldorf Works Council,” said one recent inter-office communication. “The TU workers here in Nashville welcome your help forming a union. We believe that working together with you can help us get to this goal.” What followed was a detailed report on local working conditions and organizing progress, plus short personal bios on individual union activists.
“I’ve been on some of the conference calls with ver.di and they are very interesting and encouraging,” says one T-Mobile sales rep in another city. This particular retail store organizer has prior experience agitating for the Industrial Workers of the World at Starbucks and, as a political activist, always supported “those solidarity things we do in America for Third World workers.” Now, it seems, the roles have been reversed. After meeting German union visitors last year, he confessed to feeling “a bit like a Third World worker myself in this T-Mobile situation.”
Connecticut T-Mobile technician Chris Cozza travelled to Frankfurt, Berlin, and Cologne two years ago to help mount a challenge to CEO Rene Obermann at DT’s annual meeting. Cozza met with fellow field techs, ver.di shop stewards, and works council members who participated in the shareholder meeting protest against T-Mobile’s “Wild West” labor policies in the U.S. As Cozza notes, “they have things a lot better over there than we do here — but it’s not because T-Mobile there is any nicer than in the U.S. It’s because they have a strong union.”
After T-Mobile walked away from its failed marriage with AT&T, the company was $4 billion richer due to a negotiated penalty payment, but still needed to find another merger partner to strengthen its own market position. Unfortunately, for its employees, and the CWA-ver.di campaign, T-Mobile is now trying to combine with a smaller, urban-based cell phone service provider called MetroPCS. As The New York Times reported in October, 2012, the deal “is really an acquisition of T-Mobile by Metro PCS” that would dilute Deutsche Telekom’s ownership share of the new entity to seventy-four percent, or less if starts selling its shares when and if the deal closes.
CWA is lobbying against the transaction, in part because MetroPCS has contracted out all of its customer service and billing work to firms like Telvisa, which operates call centers in Mexico, Antigua, Panama, and the Philippines. Many MetroPCS retail outlets are run by “authorized agents” and also have no direct employees of the company. If federal regulators okay the deal and T-Mobile then pursues further Metro PCS-style out-sourcing of its “customer care” work, there will be more call center jobs eliminated in the U.S. The union committee building that has been strengthened in Nashville, Wichita, Charleston, and other locations since the T-Mobile lay-offs last year would be disrupted again.
“There’s a lot of fear about the merger and where it will lead,” one CWA organizer told me. “Plus, it’s not good news that T-Mobile’s new CEO, John Legere, is a well known outsourcer too.” Legere’s resume includes a controversial ten-year stint as CEO of Global Crossing, during which time he presided over a bankruptcy that cost thousands of telecom workers their jobs and 401(k)-based retirement savings. As one young worker in New York observed, T-Mobile is already “a crappy place to work,” with forty percent annual turnover in some retail stores and call centers. If conditions worsen, getting co-workers to stay and fight will only become more difficult, he believes. “Everybody is pissed off at the company, so convincing people that management is out to screw them is easy, “ he said. “The problem is that nobody feels like they’re going to be here forever. It feels like a temp job.”
Another, older union activist, still trying to hang onto his T-Mobile job, described the daily management pressure like this: “I walk around with a target on my back. They make your life a living hell until you’re forced to leave.”
Pressure From Abroad?
CWA’s interest in sustaining this struggle is pretty obvious. ver.di’s stake is a little different, more long-term. German telecom unionists are motivated by a genuine concern that what they’ve seen in the U.S. might be a glimpse of their own future, if American labor practices were ever exported back to Europe. That’s why ver.di has helped generate the negative press coverage, in Germany, that reached its crescendo with a November, 2012, Der Spiegel indictment of the “brutal psychological terror” inflicted on T-Mobile USA staffers.
In that investigative report, based on interviews with TU supporters and German union officials, the magazine also highlighted T-Mobile’s questionable sales practices and pressure on customer service reps to meet unreasonable quotas. In Chattanooga, Der Spiegel noted, some T-Mobile workers even had dunce caps placed on their heads as punishment for not “meeting their numbers.” In 2010, T-Mobile ranked as the most customer friendly wireless company in the U.S., but it now lags behind its three largest competitors.
Ver.di has had its own struggles with DT about call center staffing, pay, and other conditions that affect the quality of customer service. The union has succeeded in pressuring management to return some T-Mobile customer service work to Germany that was outsourced to Eastern Europe. Dealing with such problems closer to home will always be a higher ver.di priority than rocking the boat over T-Mobile misbehavior in the U.S., particularly if that might expend organizational capital or endanger relationships with management necessary to defend German workers. As one CWA strategist acknowledged, “If it’s hard to for us to do something that might run against the interests of our own members, why shouldn’t they display a certain caution?”
CWA’s German partners might well wonder how the additional “juice” needed to win organizing rights at T-Mobile is going to be generated by them from afar, when CWA has not been able to apply enough pressure on Verizon (VZ), via its own members employed by that company in the U.S., to prevail in an eighteen-year fight for an AT&T-style union recognition procedure at Verizon Wireless (VZW). VZW’s non-union workforce is now as large as VZ’s total landline union membership, making it increasingly difficult to maintain better pay, benefits, and conditions for the latter.
In 2000, after much internal education and discussion about the threat posed by de-unionization within Verizon, 75,000 members of CWA and the IBEW walked out for two weeks over wireless worker organizing rights and other issues. They returned with what they thought was a workable four-year card check and neutrality deal. It covered VZW employees in call centers, technical units, and retail stores from Maine to Virginia.
Double-Breasting At Verizon
On the Verizon side, however, there proved to be no willingness to implement these unionization ground rules as negotiated. Between 2000 and 2004, an agreed-upon process for arbitrating bargaining unit determination disputes was obstructed and delayed. While this foot-dragging continued, VZW closed three northeastern call centers — where union organizing was underway — and moved the work performed by those 1,500 customer service reps to North and South Carolina, states not covered by the agreement.
Elsewhere, management threats, harassment, and firing of union activists continued at VZW, with no recourse for workers or their would-be union other than utilizing the feeble and ineffective NLRB. VZW was and is partially owned by Vodafone, a U.K. company equally opposed to unionization there.
Verizon’s long-term and so far successful strategy of “double-breasting” depends on maintaining what CWA calls “the wall” between the company’s shrinking landline business and its ever expanding wireless side. “Tearing down the Wall” was stressed in some union contract campaigns at Verizon over the last twelve years. But, unfortunately, it receded as an issue during the strike and bargaining ordeal involving 45,000 CWA and IBEW members in the northeast, in 2011-12.
As these landline workers came under siege, their local unions and community allies gathered at VZW retail outlets for nationwide protests against the wage and benefit givebacks sought by Verizon. The company’s long record of worker mistreatment in its wireless subsidiary — not much different than T-Mobile’s track record — was less frequently stressed in appeals to labor and consumers.
So, if there are demonstrable limits or obstacles to what U.S. workers will do — or what their national union can try to mobilize them to do — against union-busting within their own company in the same country, what can be expected of a foreign union in a T-Mobile-type situation?
So far, ver.di’s much valued and very necessary solidarity on behalf of T-Mobile workers in the U.S. has mainly taken the form of symbolic protests, press conferences and reports, shareholder meeting interventions, complaints to DT management within the works councils and supervisory board, and considerable rank-andfile fraternization. To a degree unusual among European unionists, key ver.di activists have experienced firsthand — and now better understand — what one CWA organizer calls “the war on workers” here.
But none of this laudable activity approaches the level of direct action, of a more disruptive sort, which might put long-established German collective bargaining relationships and “social dialogue” in jeopardy. As one CWA campaigner said, “ver.di lives in a labor relations environment where consultation is the rule. That’s why its first impulse is to talk, rather than to act like we do, because no one will talk to us here.”
The Problem of Enforcement
This cultural and political difference has created “a not-so-secret tension between U.S. and European unions” that “limits the possibility for outright industrial action against European firms,” according to Cornell professor Lance Compa and former NLRB General Counsel Fred Feinstein. In a recent survey of cross-border campaigns, where direct action was employed or threatened in some fashion, Compa and Feinstein concluded that
"Many European unionists who see fruitful dialogue with top corporate officials think their U.S. counterparts go too far with what they see as the latter’s overly confrontational, company-bashing campaigns and expectations that European unions should be equally belligerent in attacking management. European union leaders will go so far as to distribute literature and put some members in front of corporate headquarters holding signs, but they see their real point of influence in private meetings with top company officials to persuade them to rein in their U.S. managers."1
But what happens when many years of private labor-management meetings, accompanied by publicity, political pressure, and symbolic expressions of worker solidarity, fail to “rein in” U.S. managers who remain, as Dubnau described them, “ideologically and culturally anti-union” and free to act accordingly.
Even where sustained cross-border campaigning has created sufficient leverage to secure a signed “international framework agreement” (IFA), unions still face the challenge of enforcing such pacts when multinational employers renege on them, as Verizon did with its 2000-2004 wireless organizing deal with CWA. While international labor law experts like Compa, Feinstein, and others debate the best methods for securing management compliance in various legal venues, global labor federations like the newly created IndustriAll already face this problem on the ground.
IndustriALL is the recently re-branded global federation of manufacturing, mining, textile, and chemical unions. Along with the German Metal Workers, a key affiliate, and the Siemens Works Council, it negotiated an IFA with Siemens last fall that all the labor signatories assumed would apply to an NLRB election campaign held in Maryland soon thereafter. Like Verizon Wireless a decade ago, Siemens’s management proceeded to flout their parent company’s commitment to neutrality by fighting the organizing drive of the United Steel Workers (USWA). According to USWA Organizer Phil Ornot, over a six-week period prior to the vote, “Siemens supervisors and consultants held daily captive audience meetings where workers were told that it would be futile to join the union and that the company would lose customers if the union won the election.” The result was predictable: a twenty-four to fifteen vote against collective bargaining.
A Siemens Setback
This NLRB election debacle occurred only weeks after the central management of one of Germany’s most important global firms promised not to oppose unionization in its overseas facilities. Before the vote, as the USWA’s “card majority” was being steadily eroded, IndustriALL issued a statement pointing out that “the spirit and actions” of Siemens’s management in Maryland “totally breach the commitments made in the Framework Agreement.” This press release called for “swift intervention from the company.”
In a personal letter to Siemens President and CEO Peter Löscher, IndustriALL General Secretary Jyrki Raina also demanded the termination of two outside union busters hired for the Maryland campaign. Raina urged Siemens to convene a meeting of the affected workers, with USW representatives present, so local management could “inform them that the company will take a neutral position, cease all anti-union activities, take no reprisals against employees on the basis of their union advocacy, and afford the USWA reasonable access to the plant to communicate with employees.”
When none of these steps was taken and the union was defeated, IndustriAll said it would back USWA’s post-election objections, aimed at overturning the results and getting another NLRB vote. As one European HR organization noted in its membership newsletter, there was, at least initially, “no suggestion from the global federation that it will revisit the IFA with the company or call into question its value if it is unable to prevent management at a single U. S. facility from running a robust ‘union free’ campaign.”
The day-to-day representational activities most consequential to union members remain largely confined to the boundaries of a single nation state. Many American trade unionists — particularly those who hold local union leadership positions — still view the world through the prism of their traditional core jurisdiction, which is often tied to a single domestic industry, or several industries, or a particular occupation, craft, or line of business. As in telecom, where wireless is the future, but “landline” is where most remaining members are found, local union priorities may not always be properly aligned with the strategies necessary for long-term organizational survival.
Overcoming barriers created by organizational bureaucracy, geography, nationalism, or language is much harder for trade unionists than for corporate managers. Big global companies are able to marshal and deploy resources on a transnational basis, in a top-down fashion, with speed, discipline, and coordination. Any merger, acquisition, or joint venture they undertake can quickly change the contours of the playing field, while the affected workers who find themselves “restructured” must scramble to catch up with their employer’s latest Star Trek-like shape shifting.
There aren’t any short-cuts to successful cross-border campaigning. Building labor solidarity and unity requires patient personal networking and relationship building, information sharing, and escalating workplace activity among the diverse national unions or labor federations that may represent some portion of a reconfigured employer’s worldwide workforce. Commitments made by firms headquartered in Europe to meet the higher labor standards of that continent when they operate elsewhere, won’t count for much unless global union partners can make labor disruption and lost business a real threat to promise breakers.
In Western Europe, regional economic integration has forced national labor movements to become less parochial and more accustomed to working together through European Works Councils and the international trade union secretariats based in Geneva, although many political tensions and differences remain. Recent anti-austerity strikes have been coordinated throughout Europe on a scale rarely seen within the United States, except in the great immigrant worker protests of 2006.
Durable and effective forms of international labor solidarity are not created through mere organizational rebranding — as “TU” or “IndustriALL.” As the long, hard union slog at T-Mobile has shown, it also takes years of bottom-up organizing to make a difference, if one can be made at all.
1. See Lance Compa and Fred Feinstein, “Enforcing European Corporate Commitments to Freedom of Association by Legal and Industrial Action in the United States,” in Comparative Labor Law and Policy Journal, Volume 33, Number 4, Summer, 2012, pp. 635-666. For a shorter survey of recent union experiences, see Michael Fichter, “Exporting Labor Relations across the Atlantic: Insights on Labor Relations Policies of German Corporations in the U.S.,” WorkingUSA, Volume 14, June, 2011, pp. 129-143.
Steve Early worked for twenty-seven years as an international union representative and organizer for the Communications Workers of America in New England. He was involved in organizing, bargaining, and strikes at Verizon and AT&T. He is now a member of the CWA-affiliated Pacific Media Workers Guild and the author, most recently, of The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor from Haymarket Books. He can reached at Lsupport@aol.com This article originally appeared in Social Policy, Winter, 2013, (see http://socialpolicy.org for subscription information).