The state of the union at T-mo­bile

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

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Com­pa­nies/In­dus­tries - �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.”

The bot­tom line The Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­ica says T-mo­bile has formed a com­pany-con­trolled la­bor union, a type out­lawed in the 1930s.

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