Yesterday, Pride at Work held a press conference call to explain its endorsement of the AT&T/T-Mobile merger and clarify issues that have emerged in the discussions about LGBT organizations' interest in the business decision. Pride at Work, the official constituency group of the American Federation of Labor & Congress of Industrial Organizations, is a nonprofit organization that mobilizes LGBT workers and facilitates discussions between the LGBT community and the labor movement.
The thrust of the call was "The Merger of AT&T and T-Mobile will Be Better for LGBT Workers." Speakers from the organization and affiliated groups asserted that the merger will strengthen union rights in the telecommunications industry. The speakers did not acknowledge the issue of net neutrality, the principle that prohibits Internet service providers from arbitrarily restricting access to certain networks, websites, or types of content, although the merger threatens the future openness of the Internet.
The Merger's Effect on Unions
Peggy Shorey, the executive director of Pride at Work, spoke about two primary reasons that her organization was endorsing the merger. First, she explained that AT&T has a positive record on LGBT equality and support for unions. These two components are important, she explained, because in a majority of states in the United States, people can still be fired for being LGBT.
"Having a union contract is often the only protection those workers have and [is] the most effective, most powerful way to have a voice on the job," Shorey said.
Some of the LGBT-specific benefits that AT&T offers are: domestic partner health insurance, family medical leave for gay and lesbian employees, trans-inclusive health coverage, including surgical procedures, and retiree benefits for same-sex partners.
Meanwhile, T-Mobile workers have been struggling for years, with little success, to mobilize a union. The merger, where T-Mobile will be folded into AT&T, therefore, will allow those T-Mobile workers to form a union.
T Santora, the president of Communications Workers of America, Local 9000, has represented AT&T Mobility employees, and he shared more information about how the merger can benefit unions.
"The relationship between unions and employers is by nature adversarial," he said. "We have to fight for our rights and our benefits on the job. Having a union gives us a legal framework to do that. Having LGBT workers at the bargaining table and in leadership roles will make a huge difference, and this is why LGBT workers at T-Mobile will be so much better off as AT&T employees."
Shorey specified that neither Pride at Work or CWA have received funding from AT&T. She also said that AT&T did not ask her organization to arrange the conference call about the merger's benefits for unions.
The Net Neutrality Debate
The press conference call did not make reference to the net neutrality debate. Shorey spoke with The Bilerico Project via email for follow-up questions about the issue.
Pride at Work does not have a position on net neutrality. Our mission is advocating for LGBT workers and our allies. ... Fighting for pro-union, pro-equality jobs is and should be a top priority.
The current status of the AT&T / T-Mobile merger is that the FCC is in rule-making, and AT&T has already agreed not to oppose new rules. We would encourage advocates working on net neutrality to focus their efforts on members of Congress and corporations that are actively opposing the new rules.
The AT&T agreement that Shorey mentions refers to a hearing on March 9, 2011 before the Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on communications and technology. James Cicconi, the senior executive vice president of external and legislative affairs for AT&T, spoke at the hearing. His statement specifically discussed net neutrality:
For far too long, the question of net neutrality has hamstrung the Federal Communications Commission and our industry and prevented needed action on far more urgent, and real, problems, like making more spectrum available for broadband services and reforming the universal service program so that it can fund broadband deployment to hard-to-serve areas. But more important than the distraction has been the investment uncertainty created by the extended and public debate over whether the FCC should adopt net neutrality rules, and if so, how far they should go.
Indeed, the investments in broadband AT&T has already made, and will need to continue making, are multi-billion dollar and multi-year bets on the future of the company and the industry. When you are making such substantial capital outlays, the ability to earn a predictable return on that investment is vital. And if you don't know how these services are going to be regulated - in particular, whether the government is going to prescribe the manner in which the services are to be delivered and priced - that creates a big impediment to investment.
That is why AT&T vigorously opposed the FCC's efforts to impose 19th Century common carrier-style regulation on broadband services - either by adopting the extreme net neutrality rules it originally proposed in October 2009 or by reclassifying broadband Internet access as a Title II telecommunications service. And that is why AT&T participated in discussions with Congressman Waxman and many other stakeholders to try to reach a compromise that would bring urgently needed certainty to the industry and allow us, and other companies, to get back to the business of deploying broadband networks and services.
Late last year, it became clear that legislative efforts to reach a compromise would not be resolved in a timely manner, and the FCC indicated its intent to move forward with new rules in the absence of clear legislative authority. We participated in the FCC's rulemaking process with the overarching objective of obtaining a result that would protect our company's existing future business and investments. In short, we hoped to bring certainty to the broadband market so that investment and job creation could go forward, while ensuring that we could still meet the expectations of our consumers. Is the result ideal? No, and I believe our Chairman, Randall Stephenson, summed up our reactions to the FCC's decision best in comments before the Brookings Institution this past January:
"We would be lying if [we] said [we were] totally pleased with it. But ... it's a place where we know what we have ... [We] didn't get everything we'd like to have had. I'd like to have had no regulation, to be candid, but that wasn't going to happen, obviously. But we've landed at a place where we have one line of sight. We know what we have. We can commit to these 10-year and 15-year horizon investments."
But AT&T's agreement to the FCC's rules were to the FCC's wireline net neutrality conditions. It appears that AT&T is still very opposed to any sort of regulations on wireless networks. Net neutrality regulations on wire-line networks are already set, but AT&T's actions can still be influenced by interest groups to ensure success in future battles, like the neutrality of wireless networks.
A Linked Discussion
Pride at Work's decision to focus almost solely on unions and ignore the merger's effect on net neutrality is prioritizing the job security of a group of LGBT T-Mobile workers over the future fairness of the Internet. Encouraging AT&T's support of unions and the LGBT community is fine, as the merger will benefit those T-Mobile employees. But keeping the Internet open with net neutrality principles will also benefit LGBT workers because it will ensure the strength of minority voices. If net neutrality is violated, the Internet's role as a platform for global, unregulated free speech will be undermined.
Separating the conversations about net neutrality and the AT&T/T-Mobile merger is impossible because if (or, more likely, when) the merger goes through, AT&T will have even greater power, which could allow them to restrict access to certain types of content on the Internet. Rules need to be established for wire-line and wireless networks before the merger goes through to keep the corporation accountable. Pride at Work's abstention from taking a stance on net neutrality does not mean that they are neutral on the issue. In essence, their endorsement of the merger amounts to a stance on net neutrality - it says that the debate is not important and that the principles are not important enough to protect.
Catch up on the controversy with previous coverage from The Bilerico Project: