Don't miss the special, extra-length issue of In These Times devoted entirely to the subject of socialism in America today. This special issue is available now. Order your copy today for just $5.00, shipping included.
Last month, 20 Democratic lawmakers wrote a letter to T-Mobile’s parent company in Germany expressing their concern over the treatment of T-Mobile workers in the United States. The sharply-worded letter explained that this was not their first attempt to get answers from the company: “Your July 14th response to the letter that we sent you on June 29th seemed to indicate that you are not taking this issue seriously, so we were seeking additional information about your familiarity with the American legal issues at stake with your politics and practices regarding labor complaints.”
It’s a safe bet that T-Mobile’s parent company, Deutsche Telekom, won’t have much to say in response to the second letter either. But if politicians are beginning to pay attention to T-Mobile employees, it’s because workers have been organizing towards improved working conditions for years.
At the forefront of the struggle is the Communications Workers of America (CWA), which has been fighting to organize employees since Deutsche Telekom bought the company in 2001. In 2005, CWA began a partnership with ver.di, the union which represents Deutsche Telekom workers in Germany. CWA says there is a sharp distinction between the lives of the corporation’s German workers and the reality of its U.S. employees.
“In Germany, Deutsche Telekom employees enjoy a strong labor-management partnership,” says CWA’s Kendra Marr Chaikind.
In fact, the telecommunication giant’s own social charter recognizes the ‘fundamental right’ to collective bargaining, declaring itself ‘in favor of cooperating with legitimate democratic employee representations in an open and trusting manner. Unfortunately, German ownership did not change the union-busting tactics of T-Mobile’s management. On this side of the Atlantic, U.S. management routinely uses intimidation and harassment to crush workers’ basic right to form a union and bargain.
The union-busting tactics that Chaikind alleges are coordinated from T-Mobile’s corporate headquarters in Bellevue, Washington. During a 2014 trial in Kansas, the company admitted that it had developed a system to monitor any potential union activity and a response team to stamp out any spark of potential unionization. The regional NLRB in Albuquerque discovered four instances in which T-Mobile managers had illegally discouraged union activity. In a rare move, the NLRB consolidated these and other cases in an effort to determine whether the company was engaging in systemic, illegal practices.
“They had people watching you as you went in and out,” T-Mobile employee Debra-Diane McDonnell of Redmond, Oregon, told United Students Against Sweatshops in a testimonial. “They were watching the security camera tapes, and they were watching very much who was going directly to their car and who was walking over there to talk to the union representatives. You were on edge because you knew that you didn’t dare [speak to the union], at least not within any visual shot of the building.”
Josh Coleman worked at a T-Mobile call center for three and a half years and engaged in union activity. When a T-Mobile vice president spotted him wearing a pro-union t-shirt, the company rescinded a free trip he had won as a result of impressive job performance. Eventually, the company sacked him for allegedly violating a policy he says no one had heard of, then shredded the parts of his notebook which concerned his organizing.
In March, an NLRB judge ruled that many of T-Mobile’s anti-union policies are illegal. The case had compiled a number of specific worker complaints throughout the country and Administrative Law Judge Christine Dibble determined that 11 of the 13 challenged policies were unlawful. While T-Mobile seemingly shrugged off the ruling and insisted it was merely a “technical issue in the law,” many labor advocates believe that the judge’s decision could have far-reaching implications. CWA says the ruling has the ability to impact over 40,000 workers. They also point out that T-Mobile has failed to inform their employees about this historic ruling.
T-Mobile’s nervousness regarding unionization is understandable. Many of their call center employee work in highly-monitored rooms which are so stressful that they’ve been referred to as “electronic sweatshops.” In a blog post titled “I Used to Love My Job,” one T-Mobile employee writes, “The pressure to sell has forced an increasing number of my co-workers to quit or take a stress & anxiety leave.” She also writes that doctors in her community have coined a term for patients who work at the company: “T-Mobile disease.” A group of T-Mobile workers in Chattanooga even say they were forced to wear dunce caps if they were unable to meet their expected numbers.
One of the most disturbing examples of alleged T-Mobile worker abuse occurred in Maine, where a customer service representative filed a sexual harassment complaint with her human resources department. T-Mobile then forced her to sign a confidentiality agreement that barred her from talking about the situation with anyone. She was then told that if she mentioned the complaint to any co-workers, she could be fired. An administrative law judge recently ruled that these confidentiality agreements violated U.S. labor law.
T-Mobile did not respond to requests for comment from In These Times.
T-Mobile employees’ fight to organize is coinciding with other notable communication worker struggles throughout the country. Verizon workers almost went on strike recently over job and benefit cuts and AT&T workers are currently bargaining for better contracts.
Chaikind stresses the importance of solidarity in these struggles. “Coordination and coalition building has always been an instrumental part of this fight,” she says. “Our AT&T Mobility workers have been a great resource in helping T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless workers get a voice on the job. … You’ll see AT&T Mobility, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless workers at each other’s meetings, demonstrations and more. Even though they’re all competitors, workers know it’s absolutely necessary to form a strong unionized industry to stop the race-to-the-bottom.”
The Communication Workers of America are a sponsor of In These Times. Sponsors play no role in editorial content.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
We've partnered with the publisher, Haymarket Books, and 100% of your donation will go towards supporting In These Times.