In a strategy that heads straight to the top of a global chain of corporate ownership, telecommunications workers in America and Europe are petitioning the German Bundestag, or parliament, to take responsibility for labor conditions at U.S.-based T-Mobile.
The German government owns a 31.7% share in Deutsche Telekom, the primary parent company of T-Mobile. This is enough, workers at Germany's ver.di union and the U.S. Communications Workers of America argue, to mean the government should use its shareholder power to pressure Deutsche Telekom into enforcing international labor standards at its subsidiary.
"They have hid behind one defense after another, but now they are revealed before their own congress," former CWA President Larry Cohen told BuzzFeed News. Cohen has worked for more than a decade to connect the role of the German government to what he calls T-Mobile's "outrageous" actions toward its American workforce.
If the CWA, a 700,000-strong union of telephone, broadcast, journalism, and government workers, and ver.di, its 2 million–member German counterpart, collect 50,000 signatures by Aug. 5, their petition will trigger a public government hearing on labor standards and protections.
It had collected close to 6,500 signatures online as of Monday. A CWA representative said an additional 20,000 signatures had been collected on paper between the unions in U.S. and Germany, and that they would be submitted soon.
The petition demands neutrality toward labor organizing at all Deutsche Telekom sites — in the U.S. and abroad — and asks the German government to investigate working conditions at T-Mobile in America (such as the company's time-off policies), which have been the site of union campaigns for improvement.
"The federal government should work to ensure that companies that have their headquarters in Germany raise the standards when abroad rather than adapt downward," the petition reads. "Responsibility by the federal government especially exists in companies in which the Federal Republic of Germany holds shares."
Cohen said this tactic, which focuses on the role of the German government as a shareholder and required convincing members of parliament to participate, is "unprecedented."
Deutsche Telekom did not immediately respond to request for comment. In a statement to BuzzFeed News, T-Mobile said, "A petition in Germany has no bearing on T-Mobile in the U.S. We will continue to do what we do best, which is create a great place to work for our employees."
In March, a National Labor Relations Board judge found T-Mobile violated U.S. labor law by restricting workers' abilities to organize, compare wages, and speak to journalists about workplace conditions, among other rights. T-Mobile has appealed the ruling, stating the decision was due to "a technical issue in the law that relates to policies that are common to companies across the country."
Of the 11 policies found to be unlawful by the judge, T-Mobile has appealed the ruling on two counts, according to Jody Calemine, general counsel for CWA.
But the company has not disputed in court that nine of the eleven policies at hand violated U.S. labor law. Cohen says the NLRB ruling is crucial evidence of "illegal and continuous human rights violations" at the company.
While the deadline to collect signatures is only weeks away, a public hearing might not take place for months afterward, according to Cohen. Publicly airing the grievances would give the CWA leverage to push for further investigation into alleged labor abuses at T-Mobile and draw attention to the issue among the German people.
George Kohl, a senior director for the CWA who works closely with ver.di, said that the vigor and centrality of the labor movement in Germany helped create consensus among parliament members to allow the petition to move forward. Some politicians also traveled to the U.S. to see how T-Mobile management treat workers and were "horrified," he said.
Cohen, too, has praised the unity of the labor movement in Germany, noting that the U.S. now ranks at the bottom of the list in workers' rights by the International Trade Union Confederation.
"Because you still have labor organizations in the U.S. with a fair number of members, all too often the leadership act as if they're mighty," he said. "In fact, what we are is mighty weak in a global way. ... This is a ray of hope."