Deputy General Secretary, UNI Global Union
In the United States, German industry leader Deutsche Telekom opposes all efforts of the employees of its subsidiary T-Mobile USA to create a union at their worksite. (In the United States, workers may be represented by a union only in those workplaces where a majority support unionisation.)
When asked by ver.di and international union supporters to stop its hostility towards unions in the United States, the company has responded that it will not stop its campaign. WHY? Because to do so would interfere with its “right to free speech” guaranteed under the United States Constitution.
As attorneys, we are offended that such a highly prized right is being relied upon to justify inherently intimidating speech aimed at scaring workers from exercising their freedom to associate in a union. The “right to free speech” is a civil liberty intended to protect unpopular speech from punishment by the government and to encourage widespread and open debate. Instead, Deutsche Telekom proposes to use it as a shield to prevent an honest discussion about the benefits of unions.
Deutsche Telekom has not hesitated to limit its employees’ speech and communication if it involves support for the union. Its employees were forbidden to speak about the union on work time. Union pamphlets were removed from non-work areas of the worksite in order to prevent workers from access to information.
Against this background of rules relating to speech at work, T-Mobile recently insisted that its own supervisors tell the workers that the company opposes the union. Day after day, in individual conversations and group meetings, they warned that the outsider union will destroy the relationship with management, that a union may lead to strikes and that dues will be high.
Before two recent elections to decide whether the workers would have a union, the company required all of its employees to come to a mandatory meeting (even those who were out on vacation) in order to hear a presentation against the union. In one case, the company did not invite three employees who were known union supporters in order to ensure that no one expressed a contrary opinion at the mandatory meeting. The presentation included direct personal attack on the most outspoken union leader who was not even there to defend himself. Is this freedom of speech? A fair and robust discussion of the issues?
Surprisingly, the company still argues that any limit on this conduct would violate its own right to say whatever it wants at any time, unless prohibited by law.
International labor standards prohibit employer “interference” with a workers’ decision about whether to choose a union. We believe that such relentless pressure on workers amounts to interference, in violation of international standards. But whether or not such interference violates any law or standard, clearly, Deutsche Telekom could and should limit its own speech in order to allow the workers a free choice.
We expect better from Deutsche Telekom.