National Press Club

German, US Unions Form Alliance to Organize US Telecom Firm

November 19, 2009 | By Mark Schoeff Jr. |

For decades, globalization has involved buying and selling goods and services and making financial transactions across borders, creating a seamless worldwide market place.

Now German and U.S. unions want to secure collective bargaining rights on a global scale. The Communications Workers of America and ver.di, the German union at Deutsche Telekom/T-Mobile, announced at a Nov. 18 Newsmaker that they are joining forces to try to organize workers at T-Mobile USA, a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom.

Larry Cohen, president of the communications workers union, said that Deutsche Telekom treats its workers with respect in Germany, adhering to European labor rules. The firm takes advantage of tougher U..S. labor laws, however, and denies organizing rights to its U.S. employees, according to Cohen.

“In Germany, workers have bargaining rights,” Cohen said. “Workers have a voice all the way up through the supervisory boards.”

Cohen contrasted the European attitude with the “stick of intolerance” that is used when U.S. workers try to organize.

“We’re tired of the two faces,” Cohen said.

A study of Deutsche Telekom’s labor practices in the United States, which was released at the Newsmaker, asserts that workers at T-Mobile USA aren’t accorded the same organizing rights as those employed in Germany by the parent company.

“Instead of lifting American workers to the same level as its European employees, DT -- via T-Mobile USA -- has engaged in eight years of aggressive anti-unionism and hostile labor practices,” states the report, written by John Logan, director of labor studies at San Francisco State University.

Under the joint union arrangement, ver.di would negotiate contracts and labor rules with Deutsche Telekom while CWA would organize U.S. workers. Ado Wilhelm, the employee representative of the supervisory board of T-Mobile Germany, came to the United States this week to meet with T-Mobile USA colleagues. He said he will take their concerns back to officials at German company headquarters.

“We always tell them that workers in Germany, or wherever they are in the world, should be treated fairly and work under human conditions,” Wilhelm said.

A T-Mobile USA worker appeared at the Newsmaker in disguise -- and had his comments relayed through other participants -- because he fears retaliation. His grievances include what he called unfair job rules enforced at the wireless carrier.

The U.S. communications workers union has been trying to organize T-Mobile for nine years. It hopes that the leverage provided by ver.di, the largest union in the world, will achieve a breakthrough.

“We need to compete in the world economy with the rights that workers have in other countries,” Cohen said.