News & Politics

Taking the Low Road

Too often, major corporate mergers revere executives' wealth over workers' rights. If Comcast seizes control of Disney, Disney workers will face a far darker working future then those workers at AT&T who will come under new management at Cingular.
Big corporate mergers send the media into a frenzy, with reporters churning out copious copy ringing with talk of "synergy," battles between the CEOs and share prices. Yet, what's been left out of the recent reporting about the potential Comcast hostile takeover of Disney and Cingular's purchase of AT&T is an interesting contrast in how the mergers would affect the tens of thousands of workers of the four companies.

The short story is that, if Comcast succeeds in seizing control of Disney, Disney workers will face a far darker working future then those workers at AT&T who will come under new management at Cingular. I'm not going to argue that Disney is somehow a perfect employer. Far from it. Its unions aren't enamored with the company; for example, 1,300 workers at two Anaheim hotels are in a tussle with the company over wages and health care. And, abroad, Disney has not hesitated to use sweatshop subcontractors to churn out large quantities of merchandise, a fact well documented by the National Labor Committee.

But Disney does not pursue a knee-jerk anti-union policy. Indeed, it has agreed to so-called "card check," an important process that paves the way for fair union representation elections. As the name suggests, the workers literally sign a card that expresses support for the union; then, a neutral third party checks the cards, and, by previous agreement, if a majority indicate their support for the union, the employer recognizes the union and the parties sit down to bargain a contract over wages, benefits, job security and other issues.

Card check eliminates the campaign of intimidation that employers routinely embark upon during a union organizing drive. In the vast majority of union representation elections, pro-union workers (voters) are fired, they are threatened with the loss of their jobs, and they endure a steady stream of negative videos, forced meetings and written messages in their paychecks warning them of the dire consequences that await them if the union should win. That Disney has agreed to "card check" at unorganized worksites sets it apart from the vast majority of corporations and sends a message: As a company, we believe our workers should be able to exercise their choice about freedom of association and, if they choose a union, we will, then, respect that choice and negotiate with the union.

Comcast is the Wal-Mart of the telecommunications industry: Workers have no pensions, their wages and benefits are $16,000 lower than a comparable worker in the telecommunications industry and they have to pay more than $100 a month for family health care coverage, according to an analysis by the Communications Workers of America.

When Comcast acquired AT&T Broadband in 2001, it at first said it would abide by union contracts covering thousands of unionized employees and bargain in good faith. Instead, it embarked on a carefully orchestrated campaign to destroy the unions. For example, in Detroit, Comcast chopped off more than half the unionized workforce, moving dozens of jobs to a non-union facility. During organizing drives, Comcast has shelled out large sums of cash to high-priced union-busting law firms such as Seyfarth Shaw and Davis, Wright and Tremaine. The company has harshly disciplined unions supporters and fired some outright. They have repeatedly violated the law, drawing numerous charges filed before the National Labor Relations Board.

Cingular, on the other hand, has agreed to a broad card check provision. Its corporate philosophy sees the CWA as an important element of the company's daily existence. "The CWA is an important strategic partner for Cingular," said Lew Walker, vice president of human resources operations and labor relations for Cingular, when the company announced an expansion of the card check deal. "The agreement strengthens our current partnership-based relationship with CWA. We share mutual goals and values which will better enable us to continue to operate successfully in a very competitive environment." In a 2002 conference with telecommunications workers from around the world, then-Cingular CEO Stephen Carter said that, "One thing remains the same. The universal constant is people — people we serve and the good people who work with us and are dedicated to providing the best wireless service."

The deal has led to thousands of new Cingular workers being organized by CWA, evidence that when a company drops its relentless anti-union campaign, workers do vote in support of a union. By contrast, AT&T Wireless has had a much more traditionally hostile posture towards union organizing efforts, and has made fair elections impossible. The bottom line is that, while it is too soon to tell whether the Cingular-AT&T merger will lead to layoffs, the workers who will work for the new entity are likely to face a better environment.

So, mergers can either lead workers and management on a high-road approach, which recognizes that workers should have the right of freedom of association and that collective bargaining is an integral part of management's obligation to its workers, or it can lead to the low-road choice which reveres the wealth of executives over the collective good of workers — precisely the kind of short-sighted corporate culture that is at the heart of the doubts and fears about the economic future that are reverberating throughout the American workplace.

Jonathan Tasini is the national director of American Rights At Work.
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