As schools went virtual and employees worked from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, our reliance on digital technological infrastructure was never more apparent. In this area, as in so many others, the pandemic has also revealed stark inequalities. The digital divide in this country was already well known and documented, but its implications are now unignorable. Without access to broadband and a stable internet connection, our ability to participate fully in society is significantly curtailed. The student trying to learn through Zoom, the senior citizen trying to connect with a faraway loved one, the unemployed person applying for jobs, and the UPS driver calculating their route all need high-speed broadband.
Currently in the United States, 44 million households do not have a standard broadband connection due to lack of access or affordability. The arrival of the Omicron variant threatens more lockdowns and stay-at-home orders — and with that, an increased reliance on digital infrastructure in our daily lives.
Broadband should be treated as an essential utility with universal public access. But it is unprofitable for major internet providers to build broadband infrastructure in rural and low-income communities. Market competition won’t give us the broadband infrastructure we need; state and federal governments need to step in to make high-speed internet truly universal.
In the past, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) has recognized and acted on this fact. CWA represents tens of thousands of workers in the telecommunications industry who construct and install the infrastructure needed for high-speed internet.
As the Biden Administration campaigned for a bipartisan infrastructure bill, which allocated $65 billion toward broadband infrastructure, CWA launched their “Build Broadband Better” campaign in the summer of 2021. The goal of the campaign was not just to ensure all Americans have affordable and reliable broadband but to make sure good union jobs are created in the process.
“If the pandemic taught us anything, it taught us that everybody needs broadband. It’s like electricity or water,” said CWA president Chris Shelton in a press release. “But Congress needs to make sure it’s done right, with experienced, trained union workers, not low-wage subcontractors who make a quick buck and skip town.”
The union fought for, and won, provisions that prohibit companies receiving federal funding for broadband construction from subcontracting the work, a tactic used to undercut union jobs and lower industry standards. This little-celebrated victory could have big implications for the future of broadband infrastructure and union jobs in this country.
CWA did not just lobby for this legislation in the private corridors of power; they took the fight to the public. The union created “Broadband Brigade” leaders to organize their members, educate the broader public, and lobby elected officials. They also put substantial resources toward a TV and digital ad campaign highlighting the essential work their members do.
The Build Broadband Better campaign is an instructive, and somewhat rare, example of a private sector workforce connecting their issues to the well-being of the general public. Generally, it is easier and more common for public sector unions to connect their fights to the quality of services they provide to the public.
But private sector workers need public support as well, and it’s urgent that more unions devise strategies to overcome the barrier between union workers and a mostly nonunion general public. Universal broadband is a unifying issue that all working people can get behind.
CWA has extensive documentation on how the use of subcontractors has led to a steep decline in safety for workers and quality for customers. In October 2020, the union published the report AT&T’s Web of Subcontractors, which detailed years of the company’s bad practices.
Unionized AT&T technicians claim that they are constantly fixing low-quality work carried out by subcontractors, who hit gas lines and cause service outages, don’t bury cables deeply enough, incorrectly hang fiber-optic cables, and break fiber or copper cables. One technician complained, “It’s not unusual for us to roll into an area where fiber has been placed and within minutes your truck is surrounded by residents wanting recourse for their damaged pipes, drops, landscaping, etc.”
These issues don’t just increase the workload of unionized workers — they pose grave safety dangers for workers and the broader public. When cables are not properly grounded and secured, the risk of electrocution increases. Fall risks are heightened for workers when cable connectors are placed far from poles. Trip hazards are created when lines aren’t properly buried.
As another technician explained, “Customers complain because they, their kids, or mowers have fallen into these holes. Eventually someone will be hurt, and we will be blamed for something a contractor did, or failed to do.”
The poor quality of work from subcontractors should not come as a surprise. Usually subcontractors are paid per project, which encourages them to work quickly and cut corners. The Charlotte city government found that AT&T, Ansco, and its subcontractors were responsible for almost seven hundred utility incidents between December 2014 and April 2018 that led to over $1 million in collective damages.
Subcontracting not only increases the likelihood of safety hazards and utility incidents. It also makes it easier for companies to avoid responsibility. As in many other industries, complicated multilayered contracts allow major internet carriers to shift blame to third-party contractors.
While broadband providers claim that a shortage of skilled workers prevents them from building out more broadband infrastructure, CWA blames declining labor standards caused by subcontracting.
CWA communications director Beth Allen explained to Fierce Telecom,
Major telecoms have cut 45,000 union jobs in just the past four years and many of those workers stand ready to do this work. The so-called shortages experienced now are a reflection of the low-wage, unstable jobs available from small contractors that travel the country and do not allow people to have stable, career jobs in their community.
The union’s report found that workers at Ansco, a subcontractor commonly used by AT&T, make abysmally low wages. Laborers and groundsmen can make between $10 and $13 per hour, utility locators around $15 per hour, and foremen and operators between $16 and $17 per hour. With wages like this for difficult work, it’s no wonder the industry is facing a shortage.
Despite the provisions won in the federal infrastructure bill, the fight for universal broadband is far from over. States can lead the way in ensuring that federal guidelines are enforced and the internet is treated like a public utility. The CWA drafted a model bill called the Broadband Resiliency, Public Safety and Quality Act, and is organizing around it in several states.
The bill aims to reverse bans on the oversight of broadband, authorize the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to conduct oversight and third-party audits of broadband infrastructure, and require that the PUC report to legislators annually.
In states like New York, Colorado, and California, the CWA is partnering with community organizations and supportive legislators. New York recently passed the Comprehensive Broadband Connectivity Act, which maps out where service is needed and makes the data public (something often resisted by providers). Under the leadership of state senator Sean M. Ryan, the New York legislature has passed a state version of CWA’s model bill, now awaiting approval from the governor.
In Colorado, a broad coalition called Coloradans for Better Internet (CBI) was formed to fight for universal broadband legislation. CBI includes the CWA, Colorado Education Association, the AARP, Colorodans for the Common Good, and the AFL-CIO.
A broad coalition for universal broadband has the potential to cut across the petty partisan divides and culture war skirmishes that continue to frustrate real working-class politics in this country — especially in rural communities, where progressive politics desperately needs to make inroads. Left candidates at the state level should be champions of universal broadband and actively seek to partner with unions like the CWA to pass their model bill in state legislatures across the country.
Winning universal broadband is not just about getting through this pandemic. It’s about creating a modern infrastructure to suit the needs of our society in the twenty-first century. Today, the need may be for school and Zoom work meetings. But tomorrow, we need an advanced fiber optic network for driverless vehicles, cybersecurity, 3D printing, and more to exist on a large scale. And we can’t build it without telecommunications workers.