Has T-Mo­bile cre­ated its own la­bor or­ga­ni­za­tion to keep or­ga­nized la­bor at bay?

La­bor chal­lenges the tele­com’s cre­ation of its own worker group “They’re fund­ing this sham union, and it is … ab­so­lutely il­le­gal”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS - Josh Eidel­son

For more than a decade, the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­ica has been try­ing to union­ize T-Mo­bile, the U.S. sub­sidiary of Ger­man gi­ant Deutsche Telekom, which is now the third-largest U.S. wire­less car­rier. The cam­paign has so far won only two union con­tracts, cov­er­ing about 30 of T-Mo­bile’s roughly 45,000 em­ploy­ees. Now CWA is al­leg­ing to the Na­tional La­bor Re­la­tions Board (NLRB) that T-Mo­bile has adopted an anti-union tac­tic that’s been il­le­gal since 1935: cre­at­ing a com­pany-con­trolled union to drain sup­port for an in­de­pen­dent one.

“It’s a lit­tle bit flat­ter­ing,” says CWA or­ga­nizer Josh Coleman, a for­mer em­ployee. “We have mo­men­tum; the com­pany’s try­ing to stop it by copy­ing our union.”

CWA says that in June 2015, Brian Brueck­man, a T-Mo­bile se­nior vice pres­i­dent, sent em­ploy­ees an e-mail an­nounc­ing “an­other big step to en­sure your voice is heard” by man­age­ment— the na­tion­wide roll­out of a group called T-Voice, com­posed of em­ployee “rep­re­sen­ta­tives” from each call cen­ter, se­lected ev­ery six months by the com­pany. “T-Voice is your voice,” Brueck­man wrote in his e-mail, the first of sev­eral mes­sages to em­ploy­ees that CWA con­tends con­tra­dict fed­eral la­bor rules.

T-Mo­bile didn’t re­spond to in­ter­view re­quests for this story. But in an e-mail last De­cem­ber, a com­pany man­ager in Mis­souri de­scribed T-Voice as “a di­rect line for Front­line feed­back to se­nior lead­er­ship” and said that T-Voice rep­re­sen­ta­tives would be bring­ing “pain points” from work­ers to man­age­ment and “track­ing and com­mu­ni­cat­ing res­o­lu­tion back to the team.” T-Mo­bile also has cited T-Voice’s in­put in e-mails to work­ers an­nounc­ing perks such as spa days for long­time em­ploy­ees, free Wi-Fi, and cell phone charg­ing sta­tions.

“They’re fund­ing this sham union, and it is to­tally and ab­so­lutely il­le­gal, and it is to­tally and ab­so­lutely non­sense,” says CWA Pres­i­dent Chris Shel­ton. “If they want to know what the prob­lems are at T-Mo­bile, they could meet with folks who are elected by the peo­ple of T-Mo­bile and not by the CEO.”

CWA al­leges that in anti-union meet­ings em­ploy­ees are re­quired to at­tend, man­agers are cit­ing the ex­is­tence

of T-Voice as a rea­son work­ers don’t need a union. “I find it in­sult­ing,” says CWA sup­porter An­gela Melvin, a cus­tomer ser­vice rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Wi­chita. “Be­cause again it’s T-Mo­bile telling you what’s best for you.”

In com­plaints filed last year, NLRB lawyers al­leged that T-Mo­bile vi­o­lated fed­eral la­bor laws by stop­ping em­ploy­ees in Al­bu­querque from dis­cussing the union at work; by fir­ing a worker in Bothell, Wash., for re­port­ing safety con­cerns; and by pro­hibit­ing em­ploy­ees in Oak­land, Maine, from dis­cussing in­ter­nal mis­con­duct in­ves­ti­ga­tions. In March 2015 an NLRB judge ruled that 11 T-Mo­bile rules chal­lenged ear­lier by CWA—in­clud­ing re­stric­tions on work­ers com­mu­ni­cat­ing with each other and with re­porters about work­place is­sues—vi­o­lated fed­eral law. “This is sim­ply a rul­ing about a tech­ni­cal is­sue in the law that re­lates to poli­cies that are com­mon to com­pa­nies across the coun­try,” T-Mo­bile said in a 2015 state­ment.

The CWA charge, filed in Fe­bru­ary and un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the NLRB, says T-Voice is an il­le­gal “com­pany-dom­i­nated” la­bor or­ga­ni­za­tion,

some­thing Congress banned dur­ing the New Deal era. Back then busi­nesses fac­ing union­iza­tion ef­forts fre­quently re­sponded by set­ting up their own pseudo-unions to sap sup­port. “The idea was to take the wind out of the sails of em­ploy­ees who wanted a free union: ‘Here, we’ve got a sys­tem of rep­re­sen­ta­tion for you,’” says Wil­liam Gould IV, a Stan­ford law pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus and chair­man of the NLRB un­der Pres­i­dent Clin­ton. In the decades since, “com­pany union” cases have be­come rare.

Some busi­ness groups have called for Congress to loosen the pro­hi­bi­tion so it doesn’t pre­vent good-faith ef­forts by man­age­ment to get in­put from em­ploy­ees. “We don’t want to have a sit­u­a­tion where em­ploy­ees and em­ployer aren’t talk­ing to each other,” says at­tor­ney Mar­shall Bab­son, a for­mer NLRB mem­ber who now rep­re­sents em­ploy­ers. “Suc­cess­ful busi­nesses that are com­mu­ni­cat­ing with their em­ploy­ees on a reg­u­lar ba­sis feel that in some senses they are walk­ing on a tightrope on this.”

But CWA coun­ters that T-Mo­bile’s gam­bit shows why the ban should

stay in place. “This is the equiv­a­lent of al­low­ing Mex­ico to choose the U.S. trade rep­re­sen­ta­tive,” says Jody Calem­ine, CWA’s gen­eral coun­sel. “I think it’s com­mon sense that that is a con­flict of in­ter­est.”

de­serve. Why? Be­cause their lawyer doesn’t re­ally try cases; they only ad­ver­tise on TV.” An­other Fieger ad shows dark­ened sil­hou­ettes la­beled with the names of com­peti­tors as a deep voice asks, “You think you know them, or do you?”

TV view­ers get their share of flashy trial lawyer ads. But lately, there have been a lot more, and they’re get­ting nasty. Ads for firms such as Fieger’s high­light a more re­cent trend: lawyers di­rectly at­tack­ing their com­peti­tors, in a style sim­i­lar to po­lit­i­cal ads. Money spent on such ad­ver­tis­ing by law firms could rise 300 per­cent this year from last year, says Kan­tar Me­dia’s Cam­paign Me­dia Anal­y­sis Group (CMAG), which tracks TV ad­ver­tis­ing in 210 mar­kets.

The rise of such ads is tied to a slow­down in le­gal ser­vices and in­creas­ing com­pe­ti­tion among plain­tiffs’ firms, big and small. Many na­tional le­gal prac­tices, which have seen rev­enue growth slow since 2008, are go­ing af­ter po­ten­tial clients they pre­vi­ously left to small, lo­cal law firms. The com­pe­ti­tion is so fierce in Detroit, for ex­am­ple, that the share of TV ads run by le­gal ser­vices firms has in­creased 181 per­cent since 2006, says CMAG.

Fieger’s firm—known for rep­re­sent­ing Jack “Dr. Death” Kevorkian and plain­tiffs in high-pro­file class-ac­tion law­suits—has felt pres­sure to dif­fer­en­ti­ate it­self from com­peti­tors who ag­gres­sively go af­ter as many fee­gen­er­at­ing cases as pos­si­ble and try to set­tle quickly, says Alan Suss­man, who cre­ated the ads. The firm may wind up spend­ing $4 mil­lion on ad­ver­tis­ing in 2016, up from $1 mil­lion a decade ago, he says. Fieger and oth­ers “have to sort of dele­git­imize [the com­pe­ti­tion] by say­ing, ‘Th­ese guys are just a na­tional firm. They’re just trolling for clients; we’re in your com­mu­nity,’” says Ge­of­frey Pereira, who mon­i­tors le­gal ads for Kan­tar. In 2009, TV sta­tions switched to dig­i­tal broad­casts, cre­at­ing ad­di­tional chan­nels that in­creased the amount of air­time avail­able for ads— and at low prices, says Bill Day, a vice pres­i­dent at Frank N. Magid As­so­ciates, TV-busi­ness con­sul­tants. That’s made it eas­ier, es­pe­cially for smaller firms, to buy TV ads to push back against en­croach­ing com­peti­tors. Big­ger prac­tices have had to in­crease their ef­forts to get at­ten­tion, too.

Donna Lane has been work­ing in law-firm mar­ket­ing since 2007, for West Palm Beach, Fla., per­sonal in­jury law firm Searcy Den­ney Scarola Barn­hart & Ship­ley. “The law-firm cat­e­gory here is just so clut­tered,” she says. “They’re all say­ing the same thing.” Lane, try­ing to stand out, re­cently helped pro­duce an ad that takes a dif­fer­ent tack. No voices, just words flash­ing across the screen: “We get it. There are a lot of lawyer ads on TV. Seems all you hear are lawyers talk­ing. So this 30 sec­onds of si­lence is brought to you by Searcy Den­ney Scarola Barn­hart & Ship­ley.”

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