In 2015, Cosmopolitan surveyed over 2,000 female employees and discovered that one in three women have been sexually harassed in the workplace. Seventy-one percent of the women who were sexually harassed did not report the incident to their supervisors. According to the Association of Women for Action and Research, nearly 70 percent of workers aren’t even aware of the mechanisms for redress within their workplace.
The alarming scope of this problem is readily visible to anyone who has been following the case of Angela Agganis, a former T-Mobile employee from Maine. In August 2014, Agganis contacted human resources to file a sexual harassment complaint. Agganis had worked at one of the company’s call centers for years and informed human resources that she had been repeatedly harassed by a male supervisor, which included inappropriate touching. Before making her complaint, Agganis discovered that her supervisor had a record of previous harassment against other employees.
T-Mobile tried to pressure her into signing a nondisclosure agreement that would prevent her from speaking about the investigation with anyone. Agganis was also told that, if she informed any coworkers about the situation, she would be fired. Agganis signed the agreement but then immediately resigned and told her story publicly. T-Mobile claims that they changed this confidentiality policy after two separate National Labor Relations Board rulings found that the company violated labor law.
However, Kendra Marr Chaikind of Communications Workers of America (CWA) told Truthout that the assertion baffles her. “If the company has actually changed those policies, workers are still in the dark,” Chaikind said. “T-Mobile has not sent out an email telling workers about any new protocols or guidelines. (So for all they know, they still can’t talk about certain things.) Also, the company hasn’t revised its employee handbook to reflect any changes. In short: T-Mobile claims it’s changed its policies companywide. CWA has yet to witness any changes.”
Agganis is now suing T-Mobile and organizers are trying to bring more attention to her situation by putting pressure on an unusual target: the German government. T-Mobile’s parent company is Germany’s Deutsche Telekom. Deutsche Telekom was originally a state-owned monopoly and the German government still holds a direct 15 percent stake in the company, along with another 17 percent stake through the German bank. In November, Agganis traveled to Washington to deliver a petition to the German Embassy detailing her ordeal. Agganis’ petition, which was signed by thousands, called upon the German government to work toward improving T-Mobile’s labor practices. Agganis’ action prompted 25 congresswomen to send a letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel asking for assistance in the matter. The congresswomen pointed out that, as a stakeholder in the company, the German government had the ability to help alter its labor practices.
That letter also echoes the sentiments of CWA’s Chaikind: If there has been a policy shift, workers have to be made aware of it. “A worker should not have to risk his or her job while enduring months of legal action to have unlawful policies repealed incrementally state-by-state,” the letter reads. “Workers should know that the nondisclosure agreement is void and that they are free to exercise their legally protected rights.”
In December 2015, the AFL-CIO, the National Women’s Law Center and the CWA delivered another petition to the German Embassy, calling on the German government to use its shareholder power to change the company’s sexual harassment policies. “No one should have to decide between keeping their job and staying safe,” said AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler in a statement. “But that unfortunate choice is put to working women under T-Mobile’s current practice of silencing workers who come forward with sexual harassment claims. Today we are calling on the German government as a major stakeholder to hold T-Mobile accountable and demand they protect workers’ rights and women’s equality.”
Emily Martin, the vice president and general counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, echoed these sentiments in a similar statement. “T-Mobile’s policy threatens workers to remain silent or risk their job. We hope that the German government, as a major shareholder of T-Mobile’s parent company, will urge T-Mobile to quickly reform its practices to respect workers’ voices and obey the law,” she said.
The fight for new sexual harassment policies at T-Mobile are part of a wider labor struggle currently occurring within T-Mobile as many workers look to alter the company’s workplace culture. There’s now a lengthy legal record that bolsters the validity of employee complaints. Multiple National Labor Relations Board rulings have cited the company for violations of labor law, and during a 2014 trial T-Mobile even admitted that it had constructed a system to monitor potential worker organizing and eradicate any unionization efforts. Many workers have also supplied testimonials detailing the stressful working conditions in the company’s highly monitored call centers.
This has caught the attention of some congressional members. In June 2015, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisconsin) initiated a letter, which was signed by a number of Democratic House members, calling upon Deutsche Telekom to examine their labor issues in the United States. Unsatisfied with the company’s response, lawmakers sent Deutsche Telekom a second letter accusing them of “not taking this issue seriously” and arguing that “the sheer volume of new cases raises concerns about the possibility that these violations of American labor law are ongoing.”
At the beginning of December, Pocan held a congressional briefing on “The Culture of Fear at T-Mobile,” where former and current T-Mobile workers were invited to give testimonies about their time with the company. Truthout spoke with CWA’s Michael Allen shortly after the briefing and asked him how sexual harassment connects to the broader labor unrest currently gripping some corners of the company. “The gag order policies that T-Mobile has imposed on victims of sexual harassment is a symptom of an overall illness at the company,” Allen told Truthout. “The company’s workplace rules have been designed to silence and isolate individual employees from each other, to keep them from raising issues in a collective and effective way.”
Allen stressed the need for unionization at the company. “Once employees unionize, not only would their union safeguard their rights to speak to each other and seek out each other’s assistance, but the company itself would ultimately have to learn the rules of the road and actually respect workers’ rights,” Allen said. “In that kind of environment, gag orders like these would be recognized immediately by managers and employees alike for what they are: workers’ rights violations.”
T-Mobile employee Angela Simler also expressed the need for unionization after the congressional meeting. She told Truthout that she attended the briefing to help educate people on what working conditions were like for thousands of employees. “I’ll be completely frank,” Simler said. “There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. We need to apply more pressure.”
One encouraging development is the support that American T-Mobile workers have been getting from the company’s German employees. A CWA write-up of a recent strategy session in Washington explained that “[T-Mobile workers in Germany] have demonstrated outside the company’s annual meeting, created city-to-city worker partnerships, signed petitions calling for government action and organized actions to push [Deutsche Telekom] to end the double standard that enables T-Mobile US to abuse workers’ rights.” A strategy of solidarity has generated results before. In June, T-Mobile scratched its policy of punishing some workers for requesting sick time, after it pushed for changes in partnership with Germany’s largest union representing telecommunications workers (ver.di).
Shortly before 2015 ended, a group of House Democrats took their concerns a step further and wrote to the German Bundestag, one of two legislative houses in Germany, asking for a government investigation. “The scope and frequency of the charges have repeatedly garnered the attention of the United States Congress,” wrote the lawmakers. “We believe they warrant the German government’s attention as well.” With vast organizing, a huge lawsuit, worker solidarity and pressure from lawmakers, 2016 might be the year that Germany’s government is forced to reckon with their 32 percent stake in one of the United States’ most popular wireless companies.