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Success! How Progressives Stalled the Deregulation Agenda of Greedy Telecoms and ALEC

A coalition of unions, national and community groups managed to hit the trifecta--beating ALEC-backed deregulation bills in three states.

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Pressure from a similar coalition, including CWA and the AARP, as well as the Working Families party, got the language dropped from the budget, but not before they noticed legislators whose constituents would clearly be harmed by the policy taking the side of the big telecoms , which Master noted are very powerful in Albany. The state senate subsequently passed deregulation as stand-alone legislation, but so far it hasn't moved in the assembly. “We're being vigilant,” Master said.

But just when one bill dies, another appears. In the beginning of April, SB 447 appeared in Connecticut—another bit of deregulation, based on ALEC model legislation. ALEC's co-chair in Connecticut is John Emra, Executive Director of External Affairs for AT&T’s Connecticut operations.

One of the upsides, though, to these model bills being pushed in multiple states is that organizers know what worked and who is willing to join the fight. Again, CWA, AARP and the Working Families Party led the charge, but this time the coalition included groups like the Sierra Club, motivated by a provision in the bill that would allow cell phone towers to be placed in public parks.

Farrell noted that as they knocked on doors and made phone calls about the bill in Connecticut, they found people already wary of companies like AT&T. After Hurricane Irene and this fall's series of storms, utility companies, phone and cable companies took several days to restore service, leading to hearings by the state legislature. Canvassers found that citizens didn't trust utilities to take care of them, and understood the need for regulations to hold them accountable.

The ALEC connection helped in New York and Connecticut—in New York, radio advertising linked telecom deregulation to ALEC, and Farrell noticed a difference with legislators as ALEC's activities were held up to public scrutiny. But, she said, the broad coalition that defeated the bill wasn't solely motivated by beating ALEC. “AARP doesn't care about the ALEC aspect,” she said. “They're just worried about seniors who don't use VoIP, who don't have cell phones that they use frequently or at all, being cut off.”

The biggest lesson, perhaps, from the deregulation fights in these states is that organized people can, in fact, beat big money—that a ground campaign involving phone calls and door-to-door canvassing can actually motivate everyday people to take action on an issue that seems complex and hard to understand. Whether people had heard of ALEC and understand that there's an institution pushing for laws that will benefit big corporations and hurt workers and consumers, or whether they were just tired of watching their phone and cable bills creep upward each month, of having to pay for services they didn't need just to get a basic phone line, people didn't want corporate utilities without government oversight.

Corporations can and will spend millions on lobbyists, blanketing statehouses and capitol buildings with their paid advocates, but in this case, it wasn't enough. Farrell is awaiting information on how much was spent lobbying in Connecticut, to compare with what the coalition was able to accomplish for a fraction of the cost.

Still, ALEC and its corporate backers aren't going to give up easily—AT&T and Verizon, Time Warner and Cablevision and many others still want deregulation and are willing to pay for it. The bills in the three states have stalled, but the fight is on in California right now. Master noted, “These people have infinitely deep pockets and they never stop.”  

Sarah Jaffe is an associate editor at AlterNet, a rabblerouser and frequent Twitterer. You can follow her at @sarahljaffe.