Redditors Propose Setting Up A 'Consumers' Union' To Fight Back Against Broadband Giants
from the rethinking-collective-bargaining dept
A random factoid about my past that some people don’t know is that I have a degree in “industrial and labor relations,” which involved an awful lot of learning about the history of unions, collective bargaining and the like. While I firmly believe that most unions today are counterproductive (frequently holding back innovation and flexibility), the idea certainly made quite a lot of sense in the early days, in which you had parties (giant employers) with near total market power over employees who had absolutely no market power. Basically, many companies were market abusers, and they abused freely. Organizing workers for collective bargaining was a way to even the playing field slightly. That it later resulted in vast amounts of corruption and cronyism, let alone hindering the way in which companies could innovate and adapt, are certainly big issues to be concerned about — but there were reasons why that happened as well (driven by leadership on both sides).
But, still, when you have a vast mismatch in market power, with one side being an effective monopoly, and the other side being dispersed among many people, there is a certain appeal to collective bargaining. And that appears to be the root appeal of an idea percolating over on Reddit right now for an ISP Consumers Union, inspired by a Reddit comment from a few days ago. The basic thinking is that if the FCC and Congress aren’t all that interested in preventing big broadband company fuckery, then perhaps the consumers should take it into their own hands, join forces, and negotiate as a unified force with the ISPs. A bunch of folks have jumped into the discussion and are talking about a variety of different facets, from what the “union” would have the power to do to the legal issues to the administrative aspects of the whole thing.
There’s something profoundly interesting about this from a few different angles. I have no idea if something like this will actually come together for real, let alone work, but the effective “market conditions” do match those that led to the rise of organized labor, with a few “monopolists” abusing their power to treat people (in that case, workers, in this case, broadband subscribers) poorly. The situation is certainly not identical, but there are parallels. Broadband access today is certainly considered by many to be as important as a job a century ago. In fact, many consider it essential to having a job. And, yet, there remain very few broadband providers and the big ones all have pretty long histories of abusive practices. That said, the “abuses” certainly pale in comparison to the way that big oil and steel companies treated workers in the late 19th century, but it’s not a completely crazy concept.
Would people care enough to make a difference? And what legitimate bargaining power would they have? People could “strike” by cancelling their service. Or they could organize to move en masse to a competitor — if there is a competitor. The whole concept is undeniably fascinating. While I’d still worry about the same ills that later plagued (and still plague, though not always to the same levels) organized labor, one would hope that with some knowledge of what went wrong there, an ISP Consumers Union could avoid some of those pitfalls. Frankly, the biggest problem with unions (and, again, this was often driven by company management) was viewing “management” and “labor” as being diametrically opposed forces, rather than different parties with different needs but an overall focus on a similar goal. That is, even when labor hated management, driving a big company out of business entirely was certainly worse than figuring out ways to get things done. The problem was that the two sides were often so antagonistic, that bargaining itself became a war of spite, rather than each side understanding the overall issues, and working out compromises so that everyone could be better off.
It’s entirely possible that an ISP Consumer Union could eventually be plagued by similar issues — making unwarranted demands on broadband providers that make it impossible for them to remain in business. But, as a way to hack around the current (failed) politics of net neutrality, and present an alternative option, one that is much more bottom up than top down, is absolutely fascinating.
At the same time, it’s also profoundly depressing that broadband consumers of today have that much in common with laborers at the dawn of the industrial revolution…