Everyday upkeep, new installation, and natural disasters keep tower workers busy with telecommunications towers throughout the world. Recently, Hurricane Katrina devastated a large land area surrounding the Gulf of Mexico, and tower workers flocked to the area to restore communications. These men and women are independent contractors that sign contracts with companies that are employed by large corporations-Verizon, Cingular, Nextel, etc. These major communications companies employ contractors to complete work on their telecommunications towers, satellites, and other equipment. Those contractors are being paid such high dollar for their services that they can afford to further subcontract the work to tower workers and still make a profit. The tower workers are the ones who actually install, upgrade, and repair the equipment and towers to keep people like you and me happy with our cell phones and Internet connections.
In such a large labor industry, one might be surprised to find that these workers are on their own. They do not have backing of a union to support them in labor, industrial, health, or legal matters that may arise.
I spoke with John Hettish, one of the creators of an online discussion forum named ‘Tower Pro’ designed specifically for “those persons whose professions or interests center around the erecting, maintaining, or installing antennas on communications towers1”. The group has close to two thousand members. Mr. Hettish is also the owner of Middle Tennessee Two-Way, Inc. We discussed whether the establishment of a union in the telecommunications industry might benefit tower workers. With his help, I also received responses from some other members of the discussion forum on their opinions of unionization in the tower industry.
The first statement Mr. Hettish made was, “No, I don’t think a union would help tower workers. Tower workers are skilled technicians and as such are probably their own best bargaining representation.” After posting a poll on Tower Pro, I found that 71% of those that answered the poll agree that there would be no benefit to having a union available to the tower workers2. Some comments made included:
“Unions served their purpose when we were a country beset by capitalist pigs in the truest sense of the word…executives that didn’t mind exploiting their employees. But, as we grow and learn to understand efficiency and its intricacies, we find that a knowledge-based economy survives on an employment base that remains satisfied with their employee-employer relationship…Our freedom FROM unionization leaves us in a more competitive position.”
~Jason Chervenak, 4 years experienced tower worker
“My workers are the backbone of my company. If they were beholden to something (a union), instead of someone (myself) I couldn’t expect them to perform in (our) best interests.”
~Douglas B. Graham, owner of All Around Towers
Mr. Hettish seems to feel very strongly about unions, saying “My experience, and probably a bit of prejudice, tells me that unions, along with others, have ruined American manufacturing. Unskilled laborers, someone who can learn his job in thirty minutes, often make more money than others who have taken years to learn their trade.” I responded that it may be possible that unions would prevent this from happening, if the tower workers would join and actively participate in a union, if one were created. He was prepared for the question. He retorted, “The skilled technicians are not in the sort of jeopardy that the unskilled American factory worker finds himself in today.” He gave this example:
“Unions are primarily suited for extremely large companies (organizations) which hire non-skilled people to do an extreme number of diverse jobs. These people have no contact with upper management and need someone to bargain for them. The people making washing machines, for instance, rarely come to that type of work with a skill and are often seen by management as no more than easily replaceable parts of a very large machine. If one of the parts breaks, it is quickly replaced with no thought to what became of the old, broken part.”
He went on to say that “wages and benefits cost so much that factory owners, to the cheering of the stock holders, make the companies more profitable by moving to third world countries where there are many poor people to exploit with low wages and poor conditions.”
I got the impression that tower workers are very valuable in this industry because the only way one can learn the required skills is on-the-job experience. It simply takes time, patience, ability, and talent to attain the expertise that the men and women in this industry so actively seek to acquire. There is no school that will teach all of the required skills for this profession. There is no instruction manual for how to live on the road. There is only time; job after job of learning the ins and outs of the profession; and the mentor that passed along his or her knowledge to another worker that showed potential.
It seems that a union for the tower workers in the world would be of no use, as these workers know their job well and are in a position to negotiate with potential employers on their own. They are perfectly capable of standing their own ground and making sure that their work is highly valued and that they receive the proper payment for the efforts they put forth.
Ultimately, I have found through John Hettish and members of Tower Pro, that this industry does not need to have the backing of a union to support them in labor, industrial, health, or legal matters that may arise. They can do it on their own, with the help of John Hettish, Tower Pro, and other tower workers of the world. At any rate, one could say that the tower workers already have their own ‘unofficial’ union organized among themselves.
Numbers in ( ) are cited in paper.
(1) Tower Pro Discussion Group: http://finance.groups.yahoo.com/group/Tower-pro/.
1,985 members active.
(2) Poll question posted on Tower Pro: Many industries are supported by labor unions. Do you think it would benefit tower workers to have a labor union that they could join? (For this purpose, a labor union is defined as an: “association of workers for the purpose of improving their economic status and working conditions through collective bargaining with employers.”) After answering the poll, if you have further thoughts on this subject, I would be very interested in hearing them. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
3. John Hettish and the members of Tower Pro.
4. The Columbia Encyclopedia.
http://education.yahoo.com/reference/encyclopedia/entry/union-la. Sixth Edition. 2005.