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…

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Comments on “Redditors Propose Setting Up A 'Consumers' Union' To Fight Back Against Broadband Giants”

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Coogan (profile) says:

About a year ago I had the idea that that what we needed was to establish a Kickstarter project to represent a particular view (say, the Comcast-TWC merger) to try to raise money to hire a powerful DC lobbying firm. Then maybe we could get our message across to Congress.

Then it occurred to me that that’s what Congress is supposed to be doing anyway, and that’s it’s pretty damn sad that it’s gotten to the point where we feel we need to hire somebody to represent us to people who are supposed to be representing us already.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

politicians represent those they talk to. Since that is almost exclusively lobbyists that is what they are representing.

You are naive if you think they can hear anything outside their small circles of influence, when it comes to drafting actual legislation.

Talk is much cheaper than actions. In politics that is to be taken literal!

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I assume it would be near impossible, but can anyone ballpark a figure for starting a new ISP? Would it be remotely feasible for a kickstarter?

The main issue today isn’t so much the pure dollar amount (which would be in the billions — so, no, not Kickstartery), but the political connections. You’d need to be able to negotiate rights of way for laying infrastructure, and/or to buy spectrum and then set up towers.

Jay (profile) says:

Re: Re:

People took a lot of money in helping out in funding a new ISP already.

I think it started went to $2 million. Can’t recall it right now, but I’m sure it was on Ars Technica if someone else remembers…

Anyway, let’s get to a few things…

While I firmly believe that most unions today are counterproductive (frequently holding back innovation and flexibility),

This isn’t really true because unions represent democracy in the workplace. There are certainly some undemocratic unions but that’s the result of rules such as the Taft-Hartley Act which deprive unions of dues while also having them represent people that don’t pay these dues. It’s a starvation tactic and it works to make unions less effective. Also, look in other countries such as Germany. They made unions stronger while America, since 1946, has made unions weaker.

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).

I’m not positive about this but the emphasis should be where we question this… Why are we only looking at leadership? The premise I set is that you pay dues for your protection in the workplace. After seeing what has happened to the largest unions (Teamsters for example), their decimation should make us question how we can better protect workers. It’s not happening right now and the result is that the Steve Jobs of the world can walk all over their employees as a result of collusion. That should be something avoided IMO.

In regards to the Consumer’s Union, I support the idea, and want to see how it goes. It’s about time that people recognize that democracy begins with them. To have so many people create an organization from scratch is certainly needed along with someone advocating municipal broadband while protecting people on the national level could be done. It just takes organizing. I’ll definitely see how this comes up as time goes along.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“The premise I set is that you pay dues for your protection in the workplace.”

I believe that statement made sense when unions began, and for quit a while afterwards. But it is, in and of itself, quit antagonistic. It purports that there is a necessity to be protected. While assholes exist, and some of them run companies, to make the ‘all employers are assholes’ assumption is, well antagonistic. I think Mike has a stronger argument in that it is much more important to communicate, and work toward goals. Talk is all that is needed until one side becomes unreasonable. What is your standard for that?

Unless the union bosses are like legislators who do a whole lot of make work, you know, to justify their existence?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Legal hurdles, rather than cost, are the more daunting problem. Getting access to lay wire/cable/fiber is darn near impossible, since many cities have given exclusive rights to the current incumbents. And since 2004, incumbent carriers are no longer forced to lease their infrastructure. There’s some RF/line-of-sight solutions that are possible but those come with a number of limitations.

Anonymous Coward says:

‘it’s also profoundly depressing that broadband consumers of today have that much in common with laborers at the dawn of the industrial revolution’

surely the reason for that is that companies are still the same as they were at that time. every company boss wants to get as rich as possible, as quickly as possibly and isn’t too worried about the methods that have to be employed to achieve that goal. i think the biggest problem here is the lack of competition, so it’s going to be difficult to carry out the threat of changing supplier.
however, i think it’s a good idea, provided the companies concerned dont try with the union the same tactics i believe with each other and government, ie, under the table deals. if it worked, there’s no reason why not to include other companies and industries. the one that immediately jumps to mind being the entertainment industries. what good a damn great dose of really losing revenue would do them, instead of the imaginary amounts they keep spinning to politicians , politicians who are ‘encouraged’ to accept these make believe tales as being gospel!!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

every company boss wants to get as rich as possible, as quickly as possibly and isn’t too worried about the methods that have to be employed to achieve that goal.

People don’t want to admit this but the goal of wealth conflicts with the goal of providing the best product/service. I don’t know why people struggle with this concept. Everyone knows goals conflict with each other all the time. My goal of being comfortable conflicts with my goal of being healthy because it interferes with my ability to exercise (because exercise is unpleasant). Everyone knows that the goals of privacy and security are in conflict, that the goals of freedom and crime-fighting are in conflict, that the goals of freedom of expression and promoting the progress of science and the useful arts are in conflict, but they have trouble accepting that the goal of wealth can conflict with providing the best product or service. Just about any goal can (and likely will) conflict with just about any other goal; the goal of wealth is no different.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Exactly, in my recent experience job hunting the only opportunities that actually provide a living wage for those without degrees are unions. The minimum wage in the US and Canada is a joke, in most cities you’d be lucky to cover the rent alone with a non-union job, never mind bills and, you know, eating. Unions may have serious issues with corruption and cronyism and lack much interest in standing up for their workers but the alternative seems like it involves a large majority of unskilled laborers falling below the poverty line.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

…a large majority of unskilled laborers falling below the poverty line.

It’s not just unskilled folks; quite a few skilled folks and even those with college degrees are having trouble finding any job that pays enough to provide for them and their families. The two biggest problems (though not the only problems) are the costs of housing keeps going up and the lack of mobility. Many people for whatever reason cannot afford to just pack up and move to where the jobs are; if they can they get sticker shock when they find out how much housing costs.

Anonymouse says:

The hurdle here is not legal, they don’t want to start their own ISP, that is an entirely different course. They are talking about organizing as consumers, something the FTC and the state Atty Gen’s are supposed to be already, and begin to negotiate as a group.

So they reduce their cable subscriptions – as a group.
So they cut their internet package back – as a group.
So they write their congress critters and atty gens and the FTC – as a group.

Organization works. Getting your friends involved to exert your power as a voter works. This really could work, but its much closer to political activism than labor. Calling it a Union is simply a different label.

I left out the FCC for a reason: they are pretty much useless at this point. The only thing they can really do to start bringing the ISP’s under control is Title II classification and honestly, I don’t think they have the stones for it.

Alien Rebel (profile) says:

The goal of giving consumers power to stand up to our broadband oligarchy is a worthy one, but I’m a little pessimistic that a consumers’ union would fly. I’ve only had some small experiences with labor law and unions, but those include some interesting conversations with the NLRB, and DOL / OLMS (Office of Labor Management Standards) investigators, who often suggested and sometimes emphasized, just how little power unions actually have under the law. Even in the best of situations, a union’s ultimate performance, I was told, depends on how determined or apathetic its members choose to be. A labor attorney I retained echoed that, and added that FWIW, always keep in mind that labor law was crafted by politicians, many of whom did not have much desire to see organized labor succeed. Basically, labor law is a seriously flawed vehicle.

I came away from my experience thinking that labor unions are at best merely a patch on a fundamental flaw in our democracy, drawn up when European monarchical governments could charter or dissolve concentrations of economic power on a whim. Our founders created a system to yoke power to the will of the people, but unfortunately they seem to have failed to anticipate a day when economic power would eclipse and capture the power of the state. As a result we now have a vast reservoir of power that lies outside of any effective democratic control.

The currently popular dogma that economic power shouldn’t be considered POWER, and therefore subject to the will of the people, is ka-ka, IMO.


Kevin Carson (user link) says:

Unions aren't obsolete -- management is

Workers can’t afford to trust management with flexibility because of the moral hazard. Management will always take advantage of flexibility to screw workers over — find some way to take get more work out of fewer people and appropriate all the savings to themselves in the form of bonuses.

Know what would increase flexibility and efficiency? Worker self-management. Know what the “union” is that stands in the way of that? It’s called MANAGEMENT. Management can’t trust workers with autonomy because both sides know their interests are dialectically opposed, and workers have no reason to be more productive than required to avoid getting fired because management will use it against them. It would be like a plantation owner giving slaves more autonomy when they have every reason in the world to kill him.

And workers come up with rigid work rules and job descriptions because if you give management an inch they take a mile.

Flexibility and discretion are only possible when all the benefits and costs of a decision are internalized by the party making it and nobody’s in a position of power to shift consequences downward and benefits upward.

If you think unions are outdated try working in a fucking banana republic right-to-work state like Arkansas.

I’ll tell you what’s outdated — management. When workers in Argentina took over management of those recuperated enterprises, and abolished high-salared managers, the first thing they learned was that all that poor-mouth they’d been getting over the years about the desperate need to “cut costs” was a self-serving load of horse shit. Just getting rid of the salaries of the boys in the C-suite made them extremely competitive. And the place ran better when the people who actually did the work were in charge. Not to mention that workers had a reason to contribute all their Hayekian distributed knowledge of the work process when they knew all the productivity gains would go to them.

G Thompson (profile) says:

Here’s an idea..

instead of trying to create a “Consumer union”, which isn’t really a union other than in the joining of like minds definitions aka “association”, “Co-operative”, “society” etc (though a co-op does have benefits especially in buying power etc)

Change your actual CONSUMER LAWS to reflect consumers and NOT corporations.. To see examples of this look in EVERY OTHER 1st World country/region to see how consumer law actually has teeth, uses equity, and makes manufacturers responsible for there actions and goods/services!

Anonymous Coward says:

Unions provide collective bargaining for far too long the corps have run their influence into the minds of the masses , forgetting who gives them power that would be the people that work or and purchase their products imagine if all redditors and friends of friends, stopped buying or decided to take a single day off of work or a week , for example mcdonalds, walmart ,banks , or just stopped paying their bills to large isp’s for a month and put their money into an escrow account. taking money away is equally as good as paying a lobbyist .

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