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Al Franken’s relationship with unions gets chilly

There’s a slight chill in the usually warm relationship between Sen. Al Franken and organized labor. Despite months of lobbying, at a meeting Wednesday night with labor leaders, Franken reiterated his opposition to one their key issues: support for the merger of AT&T and T-Mobile.

In an interview prior to the meeting, Franken said that despite the unions’ backing, he remains opposed to the merger on the grounds that it will concentrate too much market share and result in higher cell phone rates. “I am very suspicious of consolidation of power,” he said.

Franken’s views carry weight. He sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will influence the merger based on anti-trust considerations. He’s offered opinions on other issues involving the communications industry, most notably opposition to the Comcast-NBC merger.

Sen. Al Franken
REUTERS/Rich Clement
Sen. Al Franken

It’s not like unions aren’t trying mightily to change his mind. They’ve sent letters. They’ve written opinion articles. They’ve had one-on-one meetings with Franken and numerous phone conversations. They offer compelling arguments, noting that the merger would be an  opportunity to add as many as 20,000 jobs to the union ranks.

“As a company AT&T has allowed its employees to organize without interference,” wrote Mona Meyer, president of the Minnesota chapter of the Communications Workers of America in a Community Voices column in MinnPost. “AT&T is committed to continue this approach toward labor organization if and when the merger is approved.”

Reasons for opposition
Franken, though expressing sympathy for the unions’ position (“I totally understand their point of view”), ticked off rebuttals to the merger’s upside. “We know from their documents that some of their [AT&T’s] claims on jobs may not be accurate,” he said.

While the CWA, joined by the AFL-CIO, has argued that the new company will improve service, Franken firmly disagrees. “T-Mobile would be subsumed by AT&T,” he said, with the most direct result being higher cell-phone rates. And he dismisses the unions’ argument that the merger will achieve nearly 100 percent of Minnesota’s goals for broadband Internet access. “Completely inaccurate” is how Franken describes AT&T’s claim.

Still, the unions and Franken are walking on eggshells as they discuss the disagreement. “He struggled,” said Brad Lehto, chief of staff of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, in describing Franken’s comments at Wednesday night’s meeting. “He said it was a very difficult decision because generally he agrees with us.”

‘I represent all people’
“I do understand their position. If I were them, I would have the same opinion,” is Franken’s response. But, Franken said, “I represent all people in Minnesota. I believe in the labor movement but that doesn’t mean that I don’t consider everyone in Minnesota and this is such an important part of our economy.”

The two sides, predictably, also disagree on whether the merger ultimately gets approval. The unions, which have rounded up support from dozens of lawmakers, including 4th District Congresswoman Betty McCollum, predict the merger gets the thumbs up from the Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission.

Franken says he’s been taking the temperature of regulators. “This is horizontal concentration and an even clearer case of anti-trust violation” than the Comcast NBC Universal merger, he said. While not making a prediction, Franken said he believes the merger will not pass Department of Justice scrutiny.

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Victor Johnson on 08/26/2011 - 12:35 pm.

    I support Franken.
    Reason: The US needs to keep communication company’s small, because, there is too much of a chance a “right-wing-nut” will control policies, and donate funds, in preparation, to keep information from public that they need to know to make good voting decisions.

    Retired teacher, St. Paul Public Schools/Union Member

  2. Submitted by Wilbur Ince on 08/26/2011 - 12:53 pm.

    Don’t believe the hype. When has a merger ‘created’ jobs? The whole point of consolidation is to reduce costs (or competition), and costs means jobs.

  3. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/26/2011 - 01:20 pm.

    Thank you, Mr. Franken, for seeing the bigger picture. Now, I wish that this view had been supported before as the banks created oligopolies which happily crashed the market so that they could profit. Reduced competition is a bad thing.

  4. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 08/26/2011 - 01:29 pm.

    This is a difficult decision and I value both McCollum’s and Franken’s points of view. But I am a union member and I still believe that this merger should not be allowed. There is too much power in these huge conglomerates as it is.

  5. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 08/26/2011 - 02:40 pm.

    I hope Senator Franken stays strong on this issue. Should the merger be allowed to proceed, AT&T would have the muscle to get rid of its union, if it so wished, by demanding the kinds of concessions Governor Scott Walker and his right-wing legislature imposed upon public employees in Wisconsin. Accept them or quit would be the option unionized workers would face should the company choose to take that path.

    When there is no competition, there is also no price competition, making the consumer the loser every time.

    The deciding Yes vote on the Comcast purchase of MSNBC was cast by an FCC member who then left her job to take the high-salaried one she had obviously been offered by Comcast in exchange for her vote. Comcast may well pull no nasty tricks, BUT it will be in charge of news and other content and its delivery to cable and other customers AND will also provide email services to those same customers. Good idea??

  6. Submitted by Bill Dolan on 08/26/2011 - 02:51 pm.

    I usually lean just right of center politically (a rare breed, I know). I disagree with Mr. Franken on some issues, however I fully support his opposition to this proposed acquisition/merger.

  7. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 08/26/2011 - 10:44 pm.

    “When there is no competition, there is also no price competition, making the consumer the loser every time.”

    Wow! I’m surprised you believe this Bernice, because it’s the primary reason why capitalists oppose labor unions. They make the consumer “the loser every time.”

    The benefits of competition in the labor market are just as valid as the benefits of competition in any other market.

  8. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 08/26/2011 - 11:14 pm.

    This is a pretty good strategy that will benefit AT&T in the long run…
    Eliminating competitors when they know that use of mobile phones/3G/4G services are likely to increase…

    Why does America have only 3-4 operators in telecom operators,whereas a country like India has about 9+ operators vying for customers and having a price-war with each other?
    You can expect AT&T monopolizing the whole thing after some time in America.

  9. Submitted by Sue Halligan on 08/27/2011 - 01:32 am.

    Senator Franken is correct on this issue (as on so many). He needs to educate the union members on the specifics of this merger, which has been thoroughly analyzed by, among others.

  10. Submitted by Jim Spensley on 08/28/2011 - 09:49 am.

    Senator Franken is right to be skeptical about job numbers, and it is not necessarily true that former T-Mobile workers will keep their jobs and join the Communications Workers union.

    Monopolization, however, is bad for the consumer and the money AT&T might rake in from higher rates will not necessarily increase workers or worker compensation. With less competition in the industry generally, AT&T can control services and rates in the largest markets and abandon others to reduce costs — and jobs.

    The CWA should be organizing T-Mobile workers.

  11. Submitted by Anthony Kelly on 08/28/2011 - 03:16 pm.

    I’m a very strong union supporter. But Franken’s call is the correct one. My union took a position in favor of the Twins stadium back in the day, but I thought it was overall the wrong position because it bypassed a referendum. Same deal here; the economy needs MORE carriers and democratic input, not less. I, too, want to see labor grow, but the cost here is too steep.

    Sen Franken’s position is courageous and thoughtful.

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