Help me welcome John Logan, director of labor studies at San Francisco State University and a research associate at the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center. He is author of the report, “Lowering the Bar or Setting the Standard? The Labor Practices of Deutsche Telekom in the United States.”
The Employee Free Choice Act, perhaps the most bitterly contested bill currently facing the U.S. Congress, would strengthen workers’ right to choose a union and bargain with their employers over issues of wages, benefits and respect on the job. When making the case for this landmark legislation, its supporters often point to the actions of the country’s most aggressively anti-union employers. And there are plenty of good examples to go around. According to a report released by Cornell University earlier this year, both legal and illegal anti-union tactics have become much more widespread in recent years.
But to fully appreciate why labor law reform is so urgently needed in the United States, we should look instead at the actions of firms that claim, often with considerable justification, to be good corporate citizens. Let’s consider the case of the German-based Deutsche Telekom, one of the world’s largest telecommunications companies, which owns Bellevue-based T-Mobile USA, the fourth-largest wireless provider in the United States.
Deutsche Telekom cares deeply about its corporate reputation. The company’s Social Charter states it is “in favor of cooperating with legitimate democratic employee representatives in an open and trusting manner” throughout its operations. Deutsche Telekom also claims to respect the labor principles of the United Nations Global Compact, which require that businesses should not “interfere in workers’ decision to associate” or “try to influence their decision in any way.” And in Germany, the company is, as it claims, a good corporate citizen that cooperates with unions, respects the law and upholds international conventions on labor rights.
In the United States, however, Deutsche Telekom’s subsidiary T-Mobile USA has taken a more troubling and adversarial stance, especially in the area of workers’ rights. Deutsche Telekom has chosen not to export its constructive and cooperative labor practices from Germany to the United States.
Rather than raising the bar for American companies when it comes to labor-management cooperation, T-Mobile USA has joined the ranks of corporations that fight against employees’ efforts to improve their conditions and that generally have poor labor practices. In place of cooperation and trust, the company has practiced conflict with unions and promoted insecurity among its American employees.
T-Mobile USA’s aggressive opposition to unions and collective bargaining has taken a variety of forms. The company has hired external lawyers and consultants with expertise in fighting unions and advertised for human resource managers with experience in “union avoidance activities.” (In U.S. labor relations, union avoidance is widely understood as code for “union busting”—an inelegant but altogether more accurate term.)
Management has instructed employees not to talk about union issues at work, even while it routinely forces them to listen to anti-union speeches and distributes anti-union literature, illegally spies on union supporters and illegally instructs employees to report to management any signs of union activity at the workplace. T-Mobile employees have complained about a “culture of fear” surrounding issues of unionization and collective bargaining. And the company’s anti-union conduct became a political liability for T-Mobile executive Joe Mallahan during the recent Seattle mayor’s race, which he lost by a narrow margin.
The striking contrast between Deutsche Telekom’s behavior in the United States and Germany has not gone unnoticed. In April 2009, T-Mobile’s aggressive anti-union policy caught the attention on Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who wrote to the CEO of Deutsche Telekom requesting an explanation “as to why the company’s approach to labor rights is different in Germany than in the United States.” Why, Kerry asked, is cooperation good for Deutsche Telekom’s German workers, but not for their American counterparts?
So in Germany, Deutsche Telekom practices social partnership and respect for workers’ rights, while T-Mobile USA is dedicated to aggressive (and sometimes illegal) union avoidance. And T-Mobile is not alone in this respect. Several other multinational corporations that cooperate with unions in Great Britain, Germany, Sweden, Japan, Korea and elsewhere fight aggressively against employee efforts to form unions in the United States.
Federal labor law currently offers American workers little protection against the anti-union actions of hostile employers. Or even against those of the “good ones.” This is why we need the Employee Free Choice Act.