CWA wants U.S. broadband funding to include worker protections

The U.S. capitol building in washington d.c.
CWA said there is “widespread support on the Democratic side of the aisle” for such provisions. (Tupungato/GettyImages)(Tupungato / GettyImages)

The Communications Workers of America (CWA) urged Congress to incorporate worker protections in a proposed infrastructure deal which includes billions in broadband funding, aiming to ensure its members aren’t cut out of buildout efforts.

Its move comes Congress weighs a proposed $1.2 trillion infrastructure package, which would allocate $65 billion for broadband improvements in the country.

Specifically, CWA’s newly launched Build Broadband Better campaign calls for the legislation to include enforceable provisions which protect workers’ right to organize and prohibit companies that receive federal broadband funding from subcontracting construction work to circumvent union workers.

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While the infrastructure package is expected to be the primary source of broadband funding in the coming years, CWA's Communications Director Beth Allen told Fierce “these protections should be attached to any federal funding for broadband deployment moving forward.” She added there is “widespread support on the Democratic side of the aisle” for such provisions.

“We understand that labor protections are under discussion in negotiations and we are pushing our allies to stay strong and fight for those protections,” Allen said.

CWA claimed in a press release that U.S. operators which have received federal funding in the past cut out union workers by outsourcing network construction to “low-wage contractors.” The union has repeatedly accused subcontractors of cutting cut corners and creating safety risks. In testimony before Congress in February, CWA President Chris Shelton said union members have observed a range of issues with subcontractor work, including cable that is not buried deep enough, incorrect installation of access points, conduit and ducts for fiber to the premises and improper hanging of fiber.

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In a statement accompanying the campaign announcement, Shelton said the union supports “a shared partnership between private companies and the federal government” to expand broadband access. But he added “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.”

Various players across the telecom industry have repeatedly highlighted labor force issues, raising concerns there aren’t enough skilled workers to meet the demands of next generation deployments.

But CWA rejected this narrative, stating in a letter sent to politicians in April “there is little evidence of a skills gap or shortage of broadband workers.” The real issue, it claimed, is a fissured workforce which has spread internal functions across a web of subcontractors, resulted in layoffs of union workers and driven wages down.

Allen told Fierce “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.” She added 85% of the job demand created by a hypothetical $80 billion expansion of fiber broadband could be readily “filled by workers in the sector that are currently unemployed or underemployed and already have the requisite training.”

According to its website, CWA represents 700,000 workers across the public and private sectors. Allen said this includes wireline workers at AT&T, Verizon, Lumen, Frontier and other regional providers. About 20% of its telecom membership works in wireless at AT&T Mobility, she said.