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T-Mobile Workers Press Unionization Drive in Kansas

July 25, 2016, 6:11 PM UTC
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Workers at T-Mobile who have been trying to organize a union opened their first official field office in Wichita, Kan. near one of the wireless carrier’s call centers.

The small but symbolic move marks the latest escalation in a long-running, high stakes battle. T-Mobile has fought unionization by the Communications Workers of America, which has been trying to organize the carrier’s 50,000 workers, largely unsuccessfully so far.

The number of workers in unions in the telecommunications industry, as well as the larger economy, has been shrinking for decades. But lately, telecommunications workers have been exerting more pressure, with almost 40,000 workers going on a seven-week strike at Verizon Communications to win better wages and job security and 40,000 AT&T Mobility workers rejecting a proposed benefits contract earlier this month.

Only a tiny proportion of T-Mobile (TMUS) workers have signed up to join the incipient union, far short of the 30% of workers in one location needed to trigger a formal election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. The goal of establishing the new Wichita office is to spread the word about the union and answer questions, says Angela Melvin, who works at the local T-Mobile call center and is helping with he unionization effort.

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“T-Mobile is a good company to work for, but there’s just things we need to improve,” said Melvin said, who listed pay equity between newer and older workers as well as scheduling of shifts as some of her concerns.

T-Mobile declined to comment.

T-Mobile’s larger competitors, AT&T (T) and Verizon Communications (VZ), have a long history of unionization dating back to their roots as traditional, monopoly telephone companies. However, while thousands of mobile workers at AT&T are in the CWA, few of Verizon’s mobile employees are covered. Under the settlement to end the Verizon strike, a small number of mobile workers who had previously joined the union were covered under union contracts for the first time.

For more about the settlement of Verizon’s strike, watch:

The success of strikers at Verizon in winning a better deal is feeding the desire for a union at T-Mobile. “It is very inspiring and gives us hope,” Melvin said. “It’s amazing to see the progress they’ve made.”

T-Mobile’s battles with its workers have sometimes ended up as grievances before the NLRB. Last year, T-Mobile lost several cases before the NLRB involving employees who were prevented from discussing starting a union, blocked from discussing internal misconduct, and an employee who was fired for reporting safety concerns. In April, some workers challenged an internal communications program at T-Mobile that they said amounted to the formation of an illegal management-controlled union.