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Going Global at T-Mobile: German Union Members Seek Better Treatment for U.S. Wireless Workers


When telecom technician Werner Schonau came to Nashville last February, it wasn’t for a fun-filled vacation, inspired by some Teutonic affection for country music. Instead, Schonau, an elected member of the works council at Deutsche Telekom (DT) in Neunkirchen, was part of a fact-finding mission that included twelve other German workers, union leaders, and parliamentarians. 

In Nashville, this foreign delegation, organized by Germany’s largest union, ver.di, by-passed the Grand Old Opry and went directly to the customer service center operated by T-Mobile, the nationwide wireless carrier wholly-owned by DT. In a pattern that was repeated at other stops on their U.S. labor rights tour, the Germans tried to meet with T-Mobile workers in non-work areas during non-work times, only to be barred by company managers and private security guards at every facility.

In Frisco, Texas, call center supervisors acted like kindergarten teachers, hurriedly closing all the window blinds to prevent customer service reps from seeing those gathered outside, under a union banner. The center director sent his entire staff an email reassuring them that this attempted European invasion was just a “publicity effort.” He also re-iterated the company’s longstanding position that, in the U.S., “it is better for both T-Mobile employees and our business to maintain a direct working relationship between management. The vast majority of our employees have chosen not be represented by a union.”

Where Schonau comes from, seventy-five percent of the parent company’s workforce is union-represented, including all T-Mobile technicians, retail sales people, and customer service reps. Thanks to Germany’s sixty-year old system of “co-determination” — a product of U.S. occupation after World War II — telecom workers there maintain a “direct working relationship” with management through local and national works councils, plus elected labor representation on the company’s Supervisory Board, equivalent to the board of directors in U.S. firms. The German government — headed, currently, by a conservative prime minister — even owns thirty-two percent of DT’s stock.

Despite interference  by local management last winter, the Deutsche Telekom delegation was able to hold rallies, press conferences, and after-work meetings with many T-Mobile workers who have become fellow union supporters within the same global firm. Over the last two years, about 1,000 have signed up to become members of TU, an unusual cross-border organization jointly sponsored by ver.di and the Communications Workers of America (CWA). In Connecticut, TU has already won bargaining rights and a first contract for fifteen T-Mobile workers — out of 25,000 thought to be union eligible — after eleven years of international campaigning against the company’s union busting.

Schonau says that learning about T-Mobile’s resistance to unionization, plus the high levels of job stress and insecurity faced by its U.S. workforce, “moved me deeply, even made me angry.” In a well-documented post-trip report, (available at: http://cwafiles.org/tmobile/201209-veri-di-englishfinal.pdf), Schonau and his fellow travelers expressed shock and dismay at the wireless-worker abuse they discovered in the land of the free and home of the brave.

What disturbed Schonau most was the “degrading” practice known, in T-Mobile lingo, as “decision time.” As Schonau reported, “Before an employee is threatened with dismissal for alleged ‘poor performance,’ he or she has to go home, sometimes write an essay, but always return to his/her supervisor to describe ‘why the company should keep me, why I want to keep working at the company.’ The supervisor will then decide whether he/she stays or leaves.”

Schonau found this exercise of arbitrary power, by first-line supervisors, to be “absolutely unbelievable.”  DT’s disciplinary procedures in Germany include the right to union representation and a fair hearing. Lay-offs can’t occur without a lengthy process of negotiation and guaranteed eligibility for jobless benefits that are much more generous than unemployment insurance anywhere in the U.S.

As a longtime T-Mobile technician in Germany, Schonau was “always proud to be an employee there.” But, now, he says, “I have my doubts regarding the company. That the company can treat people like that — I guess it’s just because they can. We need to fight this behavior by management in Germany and around the world. It is unacceptable!”

Germany’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

That message, much appreciated by CWA and pro-union T-Mobile workers, has been delivered by two-million member ver.di, publicly and within Deutsche Telekom, for more than a decade. Unfortunately, DT is a modern-day Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — mild-mannered and well-behaved at home, but hostile and aggressive in its labor relations abroad. The protracted struggle to get a major German employer to adhere to the higher labor standards of Western Europe when operating in the low- road environment of the U.S. illustrates many of the challenges facing other cross-border union campaigns, targeting similar firms.

DT is a global telecom giant with a presence in more than thirty countries. It gained entry to the U.S. wireless market twelve years ago, after acquiring VoiceStream Communications, a past foe of CWA organizing. T-Mobile has since become the fourth largest American cellular company, after heavily unionized AT&T, and the almost entirely non-union Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel. It has a workforce of about 35,000, more than thirty-three million customers, $20 billion a year in revenue, and sales that currently amount to twenty-five percent of the parent company’s worldwide total.

In 2000, some American conservatives opposed the VoiceStream take-over because of the German government’s continuing role in Deutsche Telekom. The firm’s partial public ownership was cited as a possible threat to the security of our national telecommunications network. Being internationally-minded, both the CWA and AFL-CIO went to bat for DT in Washington. Organized labor urged Congress, the Clinton and then Bush Administrations, and the Federal Communications Commission to approve the VoiceStream purchase.

In his personal lobbying then-AFL-CIO president John Sweeney praised DT’s enlightened and cooperative approach to labor-management relations. He noted that its practices stood “in stark contrast to the behavior of U.S. firms which actively fight workers’ efforts to improve their lives.” Then or later, DT proclaimed its respect for International Labor Organization (ILO) standards for securing “rights at work through collective bargaining” and pledged, in its own “Social Charter,” to recognize “legitimate employee representation.” The company’s CEO at the time, Ron Summer, personally promised then CWA president Morton Bahr that DT would apply German standards of labor relations to its U.S. workforce.

Once the sale of VoiceStream was approved by federal regulators and the business rebranded as T-Mobile, DT’s U.S. managers proceeded according to a different maxim: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” As a result, there has been very little German-style “social partnering” with American labor since then. Instead, T-Mobile has invested heavily in a non-stop program of “union avoidance” more typical of homegrown southern union busters like Arkansas-based Wal-Mart.

Creating Fear at Work

T-Mobile’s ensuing unfair labor practices have been well documented in various National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) proceedings and reports by Human Rights Watch, American Rights at Work (ARAW), and the Trade Union Advisory Committee of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.

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