Fear of an American planet

On 9 May, 2013, Josh Coleman arrived to his workplace at T-Mobile in Wichita, Kansas, expecting just another day on the job, helping customers over the phone in the company’s call-centre. Instead, he was fired and ordered to leave the premises immediately.

It wasn’t that Josh had performed badly. In fact, Josh had become one of the top performers in his office. His managers even offered him a trip to Puerto Rico, all expenses paid, in recognition for his good work.

But Josh was an outspoken critic of T-Mobile’s anti-union stance, and often wore T-shirts which read that the employees “expect better” from T-Mobile and its mother company Deutsche Telekom.

A year later, he wore the same T-shirt while sharing his experience in front of hundreds of union delegates at the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) World Congress in Berlin.

“We had what they called ‘captive audience’ meetings, where they read negative statements against the unions,” Josh told Equal Times. “Things like ‘we feel we could communicate better without a third party,’ or ‘be very careful when you sign away your rights to a union.’”

“There was very obvious anti-union animus from the company.”

“In all training classes,” Josh continues, “they show the same PowerPoint presentation that reads: ‘you do not need a union’ or ‘you have a legal right not to join a union’. So they don’t explicitly say “don’t join a union” but every new employee can read between the lines.”

After reaching a US$40,000 settlement in court with T-Mobile, Josh now continues his work for the Communications Workers of America (CWA) to strengthen the cross-border organisation T-Mobile Workers United (TU), with the German services union ver.di.

The aim is to work on both sides of the Atlantic to pressure T-Mobile into a collective bargaining agreement.

“It shouldn’t be a courageous act to join a union, it shouldn’t be different then joining a garden club frankly” Larry Cohen, President of the CWA, told Equal Times.


A “concerted attack”

Since the mid-1950s, the percentage of American workers in the United States affiliated to a union has dropped from about 35 per cent to 11.3 per cent in 2013.

During the same period, real wages of workers have stagnated while executive compensation increased dramatically.

“In 2011, the CEOs of the 15 largest firms in the United States earned on average 508 times the annual earnings of the average American worker,” according to an ILO study.

For Cohen, this defines the American corporate model as a “plutocracy”, which creates the conditions for income inequality.

Richard L. Trumka, President of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), argues that this widening gap has been largely state-sponsored.

“There is a concerted attack on workers’ rights in the United States at federal level, state level and local level,” he said.

He points to a recent case in Tennessee, where the state’s governor Bill Haslam offered nearly US$300 million in incentives to help expand a Volkswagen factory, but on the condition the plant remain non-union.

Trumka has called on the ITUC to include the United States on its watch list of “countries at risk”, alongside notorious labour rights violators like Cambodia, Iraq or Belarus because “the labour rights and workers’ rights in the US are violated routinely. Every day, workers that try to form a union are fired, they are threatened, they are intimidated…”

“Being on the watch list says to the rest of the world that the labour relations in the US are not something to be emulated,” Trumka told Equal Times.


Exporting the US model

The United States is not the only labour rights violator in the world, nor the worst, but its superpower status has largely influenced a certain model for economic growth and working standards across the globe.

Recent reports on Amazon’s treatment of workers in Germany for example, where the online retail company employs roughly 15,000 people, have raised concern over the influence of American anti-union practices.

“Amazon is looking for places with high unemployment rates. But they deny any collective agreement, any discussion, any negotiation, although it is a constitutional right in Germany” says Christoph Schmitz, a press officer with ver.di.

“They want, in a form of despotism, to set working conditions and wages one sided, which gives them the opportunity to change any condition, any wage at any time.

“Amazon stands for ‘new economy’ which wants to set labour standards all over the world, but that is not only unfair to the workers; it is also unfair for the competitors who follow collective bargaining agreements.”

Amazon’s labour practices have earned its CEO Jeff Bezos the title of “Worst Boss in the World”, according to an ITUC poll released today.

For many analysts, the attacks on trade union rights have been spearheaded by the United States Chamber of Commerce (USCC), one of the most powerful lobbying bodies in Washington D.C, pushing the interests of corporations and businesses.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the USCC spent nearly US$75 million in lobbying activity in 2013 alone, twice more than the next highest spending lobby.

In its policy priorities for 2014 towards labour, the USCC says it “aggressively” opposes “regulations making it easier for unions to organise employees.”

It also opposes “efforts to mandate paid sick leave” as well as “efforts to increase the minimum wage and to index the minimum wage to inflation or any other factor that would automatically increase labor costs.”

All eyes in the United States and Europe are now on the negotiations for a free-trade agreement between both blocs, called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which would make it the largest free-trading market in the world.

While often supporting trade as a means to create jobs and growth, some union members at the ITUC World Congress in Berlin have rejected the TTIP, while others expressed concern at the opacity of the current negotiations, the threats on labour standards and at the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism, which would allow corporations to sue countries for policies they believe can hurt their interest.

Given a strong set of measures to protect workers, Trumka and the AFL-CIO support the TTIP and argue that it could improve working conditions in the US, by “bringing the standard of labour relations from Europe to the US”.

The negotiations are said to last until the end of 2015. In the meantime, Larry Cohen likes to recount something a German trade union leader once told him: “We used to send our young activists to Nicaragua and El Salvador to see what it was really like in the world. Now we send them to the United States.”