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Regulatory/Politics

US cell tower climbers move to unionize

A growing push to unionize across the US is now stretching into the cell tower business.

"The entire communications industry and its customers depend on tower climbers, and we deserve more than what we have been receiving for many years," said Erik Messenger, a QualTek employee who voted to create a union at the company, in a release from the Communications Workers of America (CWA) union. "That's why my co-workers and I at Qualtek voted to join the Tower Climbers Union/CWA. Our union is just a start. Thousands of tower climbers are ready to rise up and band together. We are excited and proud to be part of this movement for better working conditions and improved safety."

According to CWA, the QualTek workers in Henderson, Nevada, are the first group of tower climbers in the US to file for formal union representation.

Officials from QualTek did not immediately respond to questions from Light Reading about employees' efforts to unionize. On Tuesday, Wireless Estimator – a publication that closely tracks the nation's cell tower industry – reported that the company declined to answer its questions about the topic.

QualTek provides engineering, construction and maintenance services primarily to the telecom and renewable energy industries. It counts 5,000 employees across 80 locations in the US, including 1,900 "in-house" employees.

"To date, we have not experienced any work stoppages and consider our relationship with our employees to be in good standing," the company stated in a recent SEC filing.

CWA President Chris Shelton is calling upon QualTek management to work with the Tower Climbers Union and the CWA to negotiate a fair contract for tower climbers. "These workers put their lives at risk every day to maintain the wireless network for AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile," he said in the CWA's release. "There is a growing movement among tower climbers across the country, and as hundreds of tower climbers join together in our union, we are building power on the job to raise wages, benefits, and ensure a safer workplace."

According to the CWA, there have been 33 deaths reported at tower sites in the past 5 years. (Source: dpa picture alliance/Alamy Stock Photo)
According to the CWA, there have been 33 deaths reported at tower sites in the past 5 years. (Source: dpa picture alliance/Alamy Stock Photo)

According to Wireless Estimator, the CWA has been working to unionize the nation's cell tower technicians since at least last year. Citing unnamed sources, the publication noted that roughly a dozen QualTek employees in the company's Henderson office are seeking to form a union.

Now, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will look into the matter, including overseeing a possible vote among QualTek employees to make the union official. The CWA said that an "overwhelming majority" of QualTek tower climbers support the petition for union representation.

The developments at QualTek coincide with renewed interest among US workers across industries in union representation. New union petitions are popping up at big name companies ranging from Apple to Amazon to Starbucks.

According to the NLRB, union representation petitions filed at the agency increased 57%, from 748 to 1,174, during the first half of 2021. Roughly 37% of AT&T's employees are unionized, while around 24% of Verizon's employees are. Unionized Verizon workers conducted a high-profile strike in 2016.

President Biden has been supportive of labor unions, and will reportedly look to give unionized workers preference in broadband infrastructure spending.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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