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Not Neutrality (cont’d)

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For Chester, that scenario is unacceptable. “The American consumers–including, ironically, CWA members–have paid for the broadband system in the United States several times over through their monthly bills for phone, cable, satellite and now high-speed Internet access,” Chester says. “The idea that the phone and cable industry need to capture additional profits to build out the broadband network is a fallacious one.”

He attributes the CWA’s stance to a “narrow protectionism that sees the world so defensively, it’s not been able to embrace a proactive strategy that would be a win-win, a win for the union movement and a win for progressivism.” But if the CWA views the world defensively, it’s hard to argue that it shouldn’t. AT&T is only just beginning to recover from the recession in the early 2000s, during which the CWA saw its membership decrease by some 40,000 workers, more than 5 percent of its total. Furthermore, as Goldman points out, in 2005 AT&T and Verizon employed more than 400,000 workers (many of them unionized), which was more than four times the number of workers at Amazon, Yahoo, eBay, Google and Microsoft combined.

Dolber, who has researched CWA’s historical relationship with the telecom industry, largely agrees with Chester, calling the CWA’s anti-neutrality stance “completely counter to democracy.” But he also says it is “understandable.”

“In an industry that has faced so much difficulty in the last 25 years, it makes sense that they would want to make sure that their employers are stable,” he says. “That’s where they work–they don’t want these companies to go belly-up.”

He also notes that the CWA isn’t alone among unions that have favored their members’ interests above those of society as a whole, citing the Teamsters’ stance on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the United Auto Workers’ position on Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency standards. However, he says, “some unions are coming together to talk about energy and pollution and those kinds of things, and I think that really does need to start happening in the media reform movement as well.”

It’s a discussion that can’t happen soon enough. At some point in the coming months, both the Senate and the House likely will consider bills that mandate net neutrality. Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) have already introduced such legislation, and Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) plans to introduce a bill similar to the amendment that he attempted to attach to the COPE Act last June.

That amendment–which would have mandated neutrality–was soundly defeated by a 269–152 vote. Neutrality proponents hope a Democratic-controlled House will change that. But while Republicans voted overwhelmingly against the measure, they were joined by 58 Democrats, many of who are renowned for their union ties.

With deadlock at the federal level, AT&T and Verizon have begun campaigning at the state level to insure that franchise agreements do not include neutrality provisions. They also want to minimize the requirements for buildout and Public-Education-Government (PEG) subsidies, win the rights to “cherrypick” which areas and neighborhoods to serve, and restrict the regulatory power of municipalities.

With so many different advocates for these individual issues, it can be difficult to build a coalition united enough to defeat the telecommunications industry. In Michigan, for example, a franchising bill without neutrality provisions passed easily in the state house and senate, in large part because its buildout requirements, while not great–servicing 50 percent of the state within 5 years–were considered good enough. It didn’t hurt, either, that AT&T promised to provide up to $600 million in infrastructure and 2,000 jobs if the legislation were passed. (The CWA strongly supported the legislation, with their vice president at one point accusing Google of attempting to “hijack a pro-consumer, pro-labor bill” for bringing up concerns about its lack of neutrality provisions.)

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On March 1, the Progressive States Network, an advocacy group for progressive policies at the state level, hosted a teleconference about what provisions should be implemented in these state franchise agreements. Along with two state legislators, the other participants were the CWA’s Goldman and Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press. For most of the call, the speakers carefully touched on only the areas of consensus outlined above. But when the floor was opened up to callers for a Q&A, fissures began to emerge.

One woman called from Pennsylvania, which last year saw a giant fight over neutrality provisions, and pointedly asked about mandating them at the state level. Another man called from Lafayette, La., which has been battling Bell South and Cox Communications for years over the city’s attempts to provide municipal broadband to its residents. “An effective broadband strategy must allow for public ownership of the networks,” he declared angrily. “There’s a distinction between the interests of these corporations and the interests of communities. It became very clear in the fiber fight down here.”

Finally, a woman who identified herself as a worker at the CWA spoke up. “All of this seems like such a no-brainer,” she said, “in terms of the benefits of a broadband strategy, for jobs, for education, for people with disabilities and health care. What’s become clear from the call is that some of the barriers to getting this done are going to be differences within our own ranks. But where’s the opposition coming from on the outside?”

When it was her time to respond to that question, Goldman said she was “thrilled” that “the workers who are building and maintaining and servicing the networks” were taking such an interest in these issues. But, she never got around to confronting the question.

Brian Cook was an editor at In These Times from 2003 to 2009. He now works on the editorial staff of Playboy magazine.

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