If you’re on the left and you buy groceries, chances are at some point you’ve been faced with a choice between a neighborhood corner store and a unionized chain supermarket. That choice exposes a tension between two long-held progressive goals: anti-monopolism and workers’ industrial power. You could advance the first by supporting an independent business competing against the corporate goliaths, or you could advance the second by supporting a business that bargains with its employees amongst a sea of non-union competitors that don’t.
Anti-monopolism and industrial power are not inherently contradictory strategies. In fact, both are approaches to the vital and elusive goal of economic democracy—the imposition of some measure of democratic control over the economy, in the face of economic forces that would close in the margins of democratic possibility. Unions, civil rights groups, and media activists, if they’re doing their job, are all wrestling with problems that expose our distance from economic democracy: ever-rising bills, tied to product changes people have little control over but cannot afford; the exploitation of the fear of deeper poverty to force silence; the refusal to invest in people or communities deemed unprofitable.
Yet in practice, anti-monopolism and industrial power are sometimes in competition. Your grocery trip offers a small example. A larger one is playing out right now in the intra-progressive debate over the proposed merger of unionized telecom giant AT&T with the smaller (but by no means small) T-Mobile.
The merger has drawn the opposition of many media reform groups and the support of many unions and civil rights groups. As Jamilah King reported in Colorlines last week, the rhetoric has been ratcheting up, with some merger opponents saying that AT&T bought its progressive supporters with donations, and some supporters firing back with allegations of racial condescension. It’s not unreasonable for critics to point out the money in play. But it is disappointing to see reporters skip over a central reason the merger has drawn support from progressive groups, including the union representing AT&T workers: the prospect of a fair organizing process for current T-Mobile workers, and increased union density in the industry. Without taking organizing rights seriously, publications like Politico are running with a story about clashing special interests and ignoring a story about conflicting values.
As Mike Elk reported for the American Prospect, no progressive group is pushing the merger more strongly than the union that represents AT&T workers, the Communications Workers of America (CWA). King’s reporting also suggests that unions and civil rights groups backing the merger took their stand after outreach by CWA. CWA says it supports the merger because it is confident that the consolidation will give former T-Mobile workers the opportunity to unionize without being subject to the fear tactics that T-Mobile management has employed in the past to stymie organizing efforts. Some reporters have described this is as a narrow benefit that will bring more dues money to the CWA and the politicians it supports. But a successful post-merger organizing drive would mean a much greater percentage of telecom workers would have the right to pressure their bosses, and that a greater share of the market would belong to a company that actually has to negotiate with its employees.
Beyond their particular grievances against AT&T, merger opponents’ arguments appeal to a long tradition of anti-monopolism, a current that runs through many left and right populist movements in U.S. history. Anti-monopolism can manifest as sanguine market-boosterism, or in the sense that economic power is least malign when it’s most diffuse. Merger opponents consistently remind us that the fall of an independent T-Mobile would leave consumers with three—and then maybe two—telecom choices where there had been four. Their premise is that consumers have less leverage when they have fewer opportunities to take their business elsewhere.
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?