The recent Take Back America in Washington conference hosted about 3,000 progressive and liberal activists. It was for the most part an excellent conference, with presidential candidates featured as prominent speakers and panels filled with experts discussing subjects ranging from global warming to election reform.
One topic was conspicuously missing. This was a topic that has spurred about 1.6 million people (so far) to sign an online petition, and about 12,000 to send comments to the Federal Communications Commission. The topic was Net Neutrality, the idea that the Internet should not be controlled by telephone and cable companies. It was nowhere to be seen at the conference. The reason, according to a conference organizer, is that "the unions" have a problem with Net Neutrality.
"The unions" in this case is basically one union, the Communications Workers of America (CWA). Like it or not, CWA is the key to whether the Internet will continue to be open, or whether the telephone and cable companies will turn it into an instrument under their control. The prospects are not encouraging.
To put it more strongly, given the influence the union wields with Democratic legislators in Congress and in state houses, the prospects are downright discouraging. Democrats who traditionally take progressive positions on issues are also Democrats who don't want to cross organized labor. When there is a conflict, labor wins. And if labor is allied with the company, it's no contest. CWA and, to a lesser extent, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), could free Democrats to vote for a free and open Internet. But in a demonstration of the Stockholm syndrome, they won't.
Consider two quotations. Here's the first: "The network builders are spending a fortune constructing and maintaining the networks that Google intends to ride on with nothing but cheap servers ... It is enjoying a free lunch that should, by any rational account, be the lunch of the facilities providers."
Here's the second: "Companies building networks plan to recoup their investment in high-speed Internet from their video product. Amazon, Google and others don't want owners of the network to be able to do this. They say this is 'discrimination.' Google, Amazon and others want to send their content over the networks for free."
Which one was spoken by a representative of the union, and which by a representative of a telephone company?
As we ponder that question, it's important to realize that CWA sees issues through a single, if understandable, focus. The union is focused on jobs. That's why it correctly supports legislation to require reporting of high-speed Internet deployment. The union believes that telephone companies and, to a lesser extent, cable companies, will have an incentive to build out networks when the companies are shown publicly to be lagging in deployment.
On the other hand, the union's focus has at times not been as sharp as it might have been. It was a loyal supporter every time one Bell company bought up another, in each case expressing the hope (triumphing over experience) that a merger might actually create jobs. Through the whole wave of industry consolidation that started a mere nine years ago, CWA was there loyally to support the telephone companies as they brought the number of Bell companies down to three, eliminated the original Ma Bell (AT&T), the largest independent local telephone company (GTE) and what was left of the largest long-distance company (MCI).
Back in 1998, the union expected SBC to create 8,000 new jobs when it took over Ameritech. CWA also went to bat when Bell Atlantic took over Nynex and when the "new" Bell Atlantic took over GTE to form today's Verizon. When SBC took over AT&T in 2005, CWA told the Commission the then-proposed merger "will preserve good jobs and a skilled, career workforce in the industry providing quality service to customers; and it poses no harm to competition."
Unfortunately, they have been disappointed, as jobs instead have steadily disappeared. SBC, for example, after its consolidations went from about 215,000 employees to 175,000 just two years later, down to 162,000 in 2005 at the time it began its assault on AT&T. In 2001, Verizon employed 260,000 workers. Now it's down to about 242,000.
Many of those jobs, most of them union jobs, may have been lost regardless of the mergers. They certainly would have been lost regardless of whether the union had taken such a strong stand in favor of the consolidation and will continue to be lost even as the union tries to mollify the companies by supporting them on Net Neutrality.
What makes even less sense is that at the same time the union is opposing the progressive position on Net Neutrality to please the company, the union is battling with Verizon over plans to keep the former MCI employees -- now Verizon Business -- separate and nonunion. Verizon's plan is to have the majority of its revenue come from non-union sources. You can log onto www.freechoiceatverizon.com to track what CWA calls the "union-busting" activities of the company.
So why is the union standing firm with the telephone companies on Net Neutrality? It's the mistaken view if Net Neutrality becomes law, the telephone companies won't build out their networks, and even more jobs will be lost. The union position forgets the history that the Internet grew because it lacked central control and that over time it will become more valuable, leading to greater broadband deployment and more jobs, if the free, open and non-discriminatory Internet is maintained as it had been.
(By the way, of the two quotes, the first came from Verizon Senior Vice President John Thorne. The second came from testimony CWA gave in Annapolis, Md., on state legislation requiring data reporting and only recommending Net Neutrality.)
CWA in other settings has shown itself open to supporting the view that a diversity of voices is needed. That's the argument made by Net Neutrality proponents - that if the telephone and cable companies take over, voices will be silenced or at least severely quieted.
Last year, CWA representatives repeatedly told the Commission of the dangers inherent if Time Warner and Comcast were allowed to divide the spoils of the Adelphia cable system. CWA staff told the FCC how "cable companies have already used their market power to stifle video competition by limiting access to regional sports networks (RSNs) through exclusive deals or raising prices." They warned the commission about the increased market power of Comcast and Time Warner to suppress competition.
In this case, of course, the competition is the telephone companies, who want to use the very suppression techniques on the Internet that CWA complained about when used by the cable companies.
Life is complicated. CWA's view on the diversity of voices is right in the cable world. It's right in the telecom world and it's right in the Internet world. The case is rather compelling that more choices are better, that a free and open network has more value than a closed, controlled one.
Follow that logic, and CWA's Net Neutrality stand makes no sense. Roll in the external factors, such as the treatment of workers by telephone and cable companies and there is no reason for the union to stand firm with the employers in creating an asset that is worth less to everyone, and will endanger the companies' financial health, not increase it.