AT&T merger could swell ranks of union that backs Democrats

The merger of AT&T and T-Mobile could swell the ranks of a union with close ties to the Democratic Party.

Analysts predict that Republicans are less likely than Democrats to try to block AT&T's merger with T-Mobile. But in certain districts, the merger could carry political costs for GOP candidates. 

That's because thousands of T-Mobile USA's employees — who are not unionized — will become part of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) if AT&T is permitted to buy up the company. CWA almost uniformly endorses Democrats. 

"CWA is very influential in certain states, and this might increase their political muscle in certain places where they are powerful, like New Jersey," said Daniel DiSalvo, a political science professor at the City College of New York. 

CWA may have the most to gain wherever T-Mobile employees are highly concentrated, according to Republican strategists. 

Bellevue, Wash., is one such place. That's where T-Mobile is headquartered.

Stan Wylie, executive vice president at CWA Local 7800, near T-Mobile's hometown, said the merger may increase CWA's political clout. Thousands of local employees could become CWA members if the deal with AT&T is approved.

"We know there are a lot of T-Mobile employees here who are looking forward to being represented, so we're looking forward to that," Wylie said. 

Wylie's CWA chapter endorsed Democrat Suzan DelBene in the last election. She lost to Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) by just 2 percent of the vote. The district has elected Republicans for decades. 

"We're hoping to change that," Wylie said. 

CWA is planning a blitz of political rallies and events across the country on April 4. Two will be held in T-Mobile territory in Washington state.

Democrats rely heavily on labor support at election time, according to Jeffrey Silva, an analyst at Medley Global Advisors. 

"Organized labor is important not only as a dependable major campaign contributor to Democrats, but it also plays a key role in get-out-the-vote efforts," he said. "That could be particularly important if Democratic voters who have become disenchanted with Obama, though not ready to endorse a GOP candidate, decide to stay at home in the next presidential contest."

CWA is already one of the most powerful unions in the country. An influx of thousands of members means more union dues; more people to fundraise, organize and vote for CWA's ticket; and a broader geographical imprint. 

CWA was one of the first groups to endorse the T-Mobile merger, followed in short order by the AFL-CIO. 

CWA President Larry Cohen said after the merger announcement last week: "For T-Mobile USA workers who want a voice in their workplace, this acquisition can provide a fresh start with T-Mobile management."

"I don't see it as a factor in CWA's political advocacy," said Candice Johnson, communications director for CWA. She noted that the merger could help spread broadband to hard-to-reach areas. 

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It has long been a sore point for Democrats that T-Mobile was not unionized. Some observers believe the development could spook Republicans out of supporting the merger because it could enhance the political clout of Democratic candidates. 

"I think the new Republicans automatically look at unions as an arm of the Democratic Party and therefore would see opening T-Mobile to union organizing activity as a bad thing and something they would ordinarily oppose," said Harold Feld, legal director of Public Knowledge, which opposes the merger. 

That could even counteract the GOP disposition against government intervention, according to Feld.

"The new Republican majority has made crushing unions an absolute priority, and it is unclear whether that will outweigh the usual Republican reluctance to any form of government 'meddling' with business deals," he said. 

Still, some say Republicans have little to fear. 

"In raw numbers it would be an impressive gain for telecom workers," said Paul Gallant of MF Global. "But nationwide, it probably doesn't move the needle politically for congressional Democrats."