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Progressives Split over AT&T/T-Mobile Merger: While Fighting Monopolies, Don't Forget Workers

Progressive groups find themselves on opposite sides over the merger of two telecom giants; do they support it and the possible spread of unions, or fight corporate consolidation?

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Though they’re less than vocal about it, merger proponents are also appealing to a tradition in economic democracy. Consumers and workers have found common cause at various moments in our history, locking arms to prevent the businesses they deal with from trampling them. Industrial power can tame the whims of corporations by making them accountable—through collective bargaining, work stoppages, or public campaigns—to the people they employ and to the communities of which they are part.

Unions tend to shy away from articulating such broad ambitions, preferring to contest claims that they’re a special interest by pointing out the role of unionization in building a middle class and spurring economic growth. You won’t hear CWA officials appealing for support for the merger so that telecom workers can use industrial power to transform the telecom industry. Indeed, CWA has drawn criticism from progressives for siding with its employers against net neutrality (and Elk and others  allege that the union has played a part in discouraging other left groups from taking on the issue).

As the merger debate draws more national attention, expect some Tea Partiers to crow that the sight of “big labor,” “big civil rights,” and big business on the same side proves that leftists are corporatists and right-wingers are the true individualists. But it’s worth pondering how much movements beneath the banner of anti-bigness, be it the progressives of a century ago or the modern Tea Party, draw their steam from a diminution in the hope of building big things that regular people can control.

Each side in the AT&T merger debate can accuse the other of insufficient cynicism toward big business: merger supporters for siding with an industry goliath; merger opponents for believing competition among corporations will help keep them honest. Perhaps the best question to ask is, which is a more fanciful hope: that organized labor will become more ambitious regarding both union density and social transformation, or that competition among four mostly non-union telecom giants will lead not to  de facto cartelization or eventual consolidation, but to fairness for consumers?


Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer and a union organizer based in Philadelphia. Check out his blog or follow him on Twitter.

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