June 19, 2013
President Obama's nominee to head the Federal Communications Commission told a Senate committee on Tuesday that his top priorities, if he is confirmed, would be consumer protection, increasing competition and providing sufficient predictability so companies know what rulings to expect. The nominee, Tom Wheeler, told the Senate Commerce Committee that the F.C.C.'s support of competition was especially important given Americans' heavy dependence on communications networks in education, public safety and consumer services. He said that his experience as a telecommunications executive and as the leader of lobbying groups for the cable television and cellphone industries had convinced him that the agency needs to promote competition over regulation. "Competition is a power unto itself that must be encouraged," he said. "Competitive markets produce better outcomes than regulated or uncompetitive markets."
Mr. Wheeler backed away, however, from his comments in 2011 on his blog. In the post, he said the F.C.C. might have expanded its authority over wireless companies if it had approved the merger of AT&T and T-Mobile by imposing conditions that could later be applied to all wireless companies. In response to questions, Mr. Wheeler said that any merger review must consider the facts before the commission and not deal with theoretical questions of the sort he raised in the blog post. "In a hypothetical musing, it is possible to do that," Mr. Wheeler said. But in a merger review, he added, "I am guided by precedent, the statute and the facts before me." Most of the other questions posed to Mr. Wheeler were friendly, and several Republican senators expressed confidence that he would be confirmed by inviting him to visit their states once he took office.
Mr. Wheeler also said that his experience as a lobbyist would not prejudice him in regulating the industries he formerly championed. "I was an advocate for specific points of view, and I hope I was a pretty good advocate," Mr. Wheeler said. "If I am fortunate enough to be confirmed, my client will be the American public, and I hope I can be as effective an advocate for them as humanly possible." Nevertheless, Mr. Wheeler also said it was his experience in the wireless and cable industries - which, he acknowledged, are much changed today from when he worked for them - rather than as a regulator that provides his primary strengths.
As chief executive of what is now the National Cable and Telecommunications Association in the 1980s, "I fought against the F.C.C.'s rules limiting cable's ability to compete with new video services," Mr. Wheeler said. "I worked for the ability of competitors to bring services into the home." Similarly, Mr. Wheeler said that his tenure in the 1990s as head of the cellular phone trade group now known as CTIA-The Wireless Association, was one in which start-up and rapidly growing cellphone competitors were at the forefront of wholesale changes in communications. "During my tenure, that competition was expanded by the auctions of 1994, wireless was increasingly used in place of wire line, and wireless data turned the phone into a pocket computer," Mr. Wheeler said. "All of these developments brought with them new policy challenges," he added, challenges that are no smaller now as wireless becomes the primary method of broadband and voice communication for millions of Americans.
Mr. Wheeler also promised to look into the favorite topics of most of the lawmakers on the committee. Those topics include continuing the E-Rate program, which provides subsidies for broadband connections at schools and libraries; raising revenue from the spectrum incentive auctions to help finance a public service communications network; and figuring out how to address consumer frustration over disputes between broadcasters and cable providers that often leave cable subscribers with blackouts of certain channels.
Mr. Wheeler also addressed television decency standards, something that the F.C.C. has wrestled with for decades. He said the bully pulpit might have more influence than any regulations the agency could write. "I do believe it is possible to call upon our better angels with some leadership," Mr. Wheeler said. He recalled that the "vast wasteland" speech of Newton N. Minow, the former F.C.C. chairman, "caught people's attention." He added: "Maybe it's time to do the same type of thing today." New York Times; more in Politico
It is one of the longest festering labor disputes in the city: Cablevision Systems Corp. and a group of hundreds of newly unionized workers can't agree on a new contract, a fight that has drawn attention from mayoral candidates and a sharply worded complaint from the National Labor Relations Board. Now, the dispute will be aired widely on television.
Starting Wednesday, the Communications Workers of America is planning to run advertisements on television stations including NY1 and CNN and in print in the New York Daily News, presenting its side of the long-running dispute. The ad's narrator, a worker clad in khakis and a navy shirt, points to a picture of a smiling James Dolan, Cablevision's president and CEO, leaning back in an office chair. "When Cablevision workers assert their rights, this company fires them. When the federal labor board says that's illegal, he sues to destroy their power, threatening workers everywhere," the ad says in part.
Cablevision spokesman Charles Schueler said 22 Brooklyn workers who lost their jobs when they went on strike in February had been hired back. The company has vigorously disputed the NLRB's complaint, and contends the CWA is preventing workers from disbanding the union. The campaign against Cablevision has become a cause among mayoral candidates, with all but one of the major Democratic hopefuls rallying to support the workers in recent weeks. The ad campaign, which will cost several hundred thousand dollars, is the latest expenditure for the union as it has worked for more than a year to retain 273 new members at one of the region's major employers. "It's an escalation. It signals our willingness to do whatever it takes for us and as long as it takes for us to win this fight," said Bob Master, political director for the CWA's District 1 office for the northeast. Experts said it is part of a new reality in which unions fight vigorously for what often amount to symbolic victories as employers have done more to oppose organized labor. "They are spending a huge amount of money to retrieve small numbers of workers because they want to be seen as growing, as successful," said Gary Chaison, a professor of labor relations at Clark University.
The ad campaign comes at a sensitive time for the Dolans, one of the region's most powerful business families. The City Council on Wednesday will hold a hearing about whether to grant Madison Square Garden, which is owned by the Dolans, an indefinite permit. The Dolans are also seeking to preserve state tax breaks for Madison Square Garden and they are bidding to redevelop the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island into a marquee stadium for the region. The vast majority of Cablevision's 17,000 workers around the region aren't unionized. But as part of their diverse holdings the Dolans have relationships with about 30 unions around the city, a spokesman said.
Local business leaders said CWA is seen as militant, and the bitter dispute isn't seen as reflective of labor-business relations around the city. "They're not considered a particularly constructive partner in resolving labor disputes," said Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of Partnership for New York City, a group of business executives. The dispute with Cablevision began in January 2012, when the Brooklyn workers voted 180 to 86 to become members of the CWA's Local 1109. About a year later, 22 workers lost their jobs when they tried to go on strike. Mr. Schueler said the workers are "back working with Cablevision, and we consider the matter behind us." This spring the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint against Cablevision, accusing it of negotiating in bad faith.
Cablevision has fought back, petitioning the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to suspend the board from pursing the complaint because it says recess appointments made by President Barack Obama are illegal. The court has yet to rule. Cablevision officials said its Bronx employees voted against unionizing a year ago and the CWA has been using the NLRB complaint to prevent Brooklyn workers from holding a new vote to leave the union. "Now the CWA is doing everything they can to block our employees from voting them out in Brooklyn," Mr. Schueler said. A CWA spokesman disputed the accusation, arguing that a majority of workers still support the union. Mr. Master said the appeal amounts to paralyzing the NLRB in pursuit of Cablevision's interests, and demonstrates the lengths to which the Dolans are prepared to go to prevent the union from gathering strength. "It could have a paralyzing effect on labor boards in many regions across the country," Mr. Master said. "Dolan has put way more money into this than it would take to settle the contract." Wall Street Journal
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