CWA Union Teams Up With Free Press, Consumer Groups to Oppose Telecom Deregulation

The Communications Workers of America union has been criticized by progressive consumers groups like Free Press for its positions on net neutrality and the proposed AT&T-T-Mobile merger. Last year, Free Press criticized CWA for endorsing the T-Mobile-AT&T deal, which would have given CWA the right to organize T-Mobile employees without employer interference.

“It may create more dues-paying members for CWA, but does it mean it’s good for the overall job market and the country? Mergers almost always result in layoffs,” Free Press Political Adviser Joel Kelsey told me last year.

Now, though, CWA is teaming up with groups like Free Press to fight two big bills that they say would deregulate the telecommunications industry, help build telecom monopolies and lead to telecom job losses.

Earlier this year, Verizon applied to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to purchase cable spectrum from four different cable companies. The deal would allow Verizon to market cell phone service in a “quadruple play” package deal along with cable, landline telephone service and Internet access with cable companies like Comcast and Time Warner. The deal between Verizon and the cable companies could help them corner the market on cellular service by offering discounts on the other services.

Wednesday, CWA members stood behind Free Press’ Kelsey as he testified against allowing the FCC to approve the deal at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights.

“We’ve heard a lot about the ‘spectrum crisis,’ but today I’d like to point out we face an equally large competition crisis. This is a crisis that consumers are already facing today as they get locked in to more expensive multi-year bundles, while competitors are locked out of entering the marketplace to offer better alternatives,” said Kelsey.

“If approved by the Federal Communications Commission, the deal would effectively result in an unchecked monopoly by the nation’s largest cable and wireless companies over the telecommunications industry, killing thousands of jobs, ending competition, raising prices for consumers, lowering service quality and discontinuing the development of high-speed internet infrastructure,”
 CWA President Larry Cohen and the IBEW President Edwin Hill said in a joint statement. Both of their unions are currently involved in contentious contract negotiations with Verizon that resulted in a brief three week strike last August.

CWA is also currently fighting a bill in New York State that Verizon favors that would allow for the deregulation of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). Comcast, Time Warner and Verizon FiOS sell Internet, phone service and cable—a “triple play” package. According to CWA District 1 New York State Research Economist Pete Sikora, approximately half of all New York State residents have VoIP phone service, but it is not regulated the same way as traditional telephone service.

CWA, along with consumer groups like Consumers Union and NYPIRG, are opposing a provision in a budget proposed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo that prevent the state’s Public Service Commission, which regulates land line telephone service, from regulating VOIP phone service. CWA in a television ad claims that the legislation is crafted and based upon model legislation of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

“Our position is that it simply is in keeping with the national policy on VoIP, which is to not regulate this emerging technology,” Verizon spokesman John Bonomo told the Albany Times Union. “VoIP is an optional service that brings a wealth of options and features to consumers, and benefits to the economy in terms of greater competition and services. Several states have passed similar legislation.”

CWA disagrees and feels that the bill would hurt both consumers and workers.

“The three main things that current telephone regulation covers are affordability, access and consumer quality. Under this legislation, if your VoIP phone breaks, good luck with that. If there is a long storm and lots of outages, there won’t be any consequences if they don’t fix the network,” Sikora says. “Better quality means more work for CWA members fixing telephones. If you can’t regulate VoIP, it’s a very big deal for CWA members’ interests, which aligned with our customer’s interest.”

CWA and consumer groups like Free Press have disagreed at times over regulation of the telecom industry. But right now, there’s clearly common ground between consumers and telecom workers wanting high-paying union jobs.