Lessons from the TWU-Telus Dispute

When the Telecommunications Workers Union (TWU) pulled its members at Telus (one Canada's largest telephone companies) off the job in late July, its members were euphoric. Picketing enabled them to strike back at the management that had been putting them through years of stress.

The rest of the labour movement came forth with tremendous support. Members from other unions participated in rallies supporting the TWU across Alberta and British Columbia. Unions in both provinces, the rest of Canada and abroad offered financial help and use of their resources. The two provincial federations of labour provided generous financial support. TWU's issues were communicated to other unions' members, and they provided strong picket line support.

In the course of the dispute, TWU tried to turn competition in the telecom industry to its advantage. It ran a series of radio and newspaper ads asking members, supporters and customers to cancel optional features like call-waiting and call-forwarding. It planned to escalate this request, asking people to cancel with Telus altogether and to switch their services to competitors.

UNION BUSTING

But the union's confidence faded as Telus deployed an unprecedented array of union-busting tools. The company imported thousands of scabs from central and eastern Canada and the States, using them together with a huge number of managers to do TWU members' work. In addition, Telus made unprecedented use of "security" companies specializing in picket line harassment and intimidation to make picketers' lives miserable. As the dispute continued, the company used a powerful combination of bribes and threats to induce union members to cross picket lines in Alberta. Ultimately, more than half the unionized workforce there crossed the picket line, allowing Telus to resume normal operations.

In the course of the dispute, Telus acknowledged what the union had maintained all along--that the company was shipping TWU work to overseas call centres in the Philippines and India. Meanwhile, in B.C. the courts granted Telus's request for an unusually restrictive picketing injunction, while AFI security guards were allowed to engage in aggressive, intimidating, in-your-face behaviour against picketers, their families and their communities.

Despite the valiant action of those who held out on the picket line, the union's efforts were not having the desired effect. By September, Telus had resumed normal operations. At the same time, TWU's attempt to hit the company in the pocketbook was having no impact. During the third quarter, which included a major portion of the dispute, Telus's net income grew 21 percent and the company increased its dividend by 37.5 percent.

Despite the strike, the company enjoyed the best third quarter financial results of any incumbent phone company in Canada. Meanwhile, the union's finances were being drained by the outlay of millions of dollars per week in strike pay. Facing deteriorating finances and little prospect of success over time, the leadership of the TWU confronted the possibility that the union would be broken. It was essential to return to the bargaining table to stem the hemorrhaging.

At this stage, the federal Minister of Labour finally got involved. Entwistle, the Telus CEO, had insisted from early on that he did not want any government interference in the dispute. But it appears that the Minister convinced Entwistle he had to return to the bargaining table if he wanted to avoid the appointment of a special mediator.

During two weeks of brutal bargaining, the bargaining committee succeeded in modifying some of the worst aspects of the original Telus deal. It secured improved benefits, protected the pension plan, and ensured that union members would do the work on Telus's planned internet-based TV. But the reality cannot be sugar-coated: the union suffered a major setback, losing the powerful contract language that it had secured in decades of struggle against BC Tel.

Angry and frustrated because the tentative deal failed to preserve this language, 50.3 percent of the TWU membership voted to reject the tentative agreement. This forced the union leadership to return to the table, where they were able to make a few more positive changes to the initial deal. When this version was put to the members for a second vote, 64.1 percent said yes.

No one is enthusiastic about the new contract. A great of emotional energy is focused on the things that have been lost. This defeat has generated understandable anger and frustration among TWU members. Such feelings are to be expected. Unfortunately, there is often a tendency in such circumstances to engage in personal recriminations in an attempt to lay blame for a bitterly disappointing outcome.

But a realistic assessment of the forces arrayed against the union makes it obvious that under the circumstances a more positive outcome was highly unlikely. In large part this is due to the fact that, despite all of the attention that has been paid to the issue, organized labour in general and telecom unions in particular have done little to mount a serious response to globalization and everything it implies for workers and their organizations.

INDUSTRY TRANSFORMED

For much of the post-war era, workers in the telecommunications sector enjoyed a relatively privileged existence. Working for highly regulated private and public monopolies, they enjoyed wages that were superior to those of other organized workers, as well as job security that allowed them to retire with a decent pension after a lifetime on the job. This relationship began to unravel with the 1984 break-up of AT&T, however. This event proved to be the opening salvo in a series of massive changes that have rocked the sector ever since.

In a forerunner of the process that has since come to be known as globalization, the corporate sector forced governments to abandon social oversight of the telecommunications industry and to allow competition in the highly profitable long distance part of the business so that companies could reduce their communications costs and the industry could be reshaped to address their organizational needs.

The cost to telephone workers has been enormous. In the past twenty years, hundreds of thousands of union jobs have been lost from phone company bargaining units. In the same period, telecom corporations have established and purchased major non-union subsidiaries. This upheaval has been reenforced by the advent of unprecedented technological change characterized by the digitalization of the telephone network, the advent of e-mail and the internet, and the birth of the cell phone, which has accelerated the transformation of the industry away from the wireline services that traditionally dominated.

To make matters worse for unions in the sector, communications companies have gone all-out to prevent cellular service, which is the fastest and most profitable part of the communications industry, from being unionized.

All of these factors have combined to vastly increase the power of telecom companies relative to that of their unionized employees. Not surprisingly, these companies have used their increased power to take back many of the gains that unionized telephone workers won earlier in the post-war era. The confrontation between the Telus Corporation and the Telecommunications Workers Union can only be adequately understood in the context of this attack.

FIVE-YEAR STRUGGLE

New Book

Secrets of a successful organizer

A step-by-step guide to building power on the job. Buy Now. »

The four-month altercation between Telus and the TWU was the culmination of a five year struggle to determine the nature of the relationship between the company and the union. Prior to that time, TWU had struggled successfully to gain unparalleled input into and control over job content, job descriptions, the jurisdiction of its bargaining unit and the administration of technological change. This gave the union a unique ability to play a pro-active role with respect to the management of the British Columbia Telephone Company and control over its members' working lives.

When BC Tel merged with the provincial phone company in Alberta in 1999, the TWU was determined to ensure that these historical gains would be maintained in any collective agreement it signed with Telus, the new company. To that end, TWU insisted that bargaining would be based on modifications to the existing TWU-BC Tel contract. Darren Entwistle, the new CEO hired by the Telus Board of Directors to tame the TWU, was equally adamant in insisting upon a total re-write of the collective agreement that contained none of the language restricting management's rights that existed in the TWU-BC Tel contract. It was a case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. In the context of the changes that have rocked the industry, Telus proved to be the more powerful of parties.

For nearly five years, little or nothing was achieved at the bargaining table. Throughout this period, most of the interaction between the union and the company took place in a series of court interventions and labour board proceedings, where the parties jockeyed for position. While these proceedings were in progress, however, Telus pursued a number of aggressive, unilateral actions in the workplace, attempting to directly implement its version of management's rights. This behaviour generated tension, anger and frustration in the ranks of the company's unionized employees as well as a series of labour board findings that the company was engaging in unfair labour practices and interfering in the administration of the union.

Despite the serious nature of these charges, however, the board refused to invoke punitive sanctions against the company. At the same time, the TWU was keenly aware of unions' experience in confrontations with telecom companies capable of maintaining their operations through the combined use of scabs, automation and the electronic transfer of work. So it strove to keep its members on the job in the face of these provocations. Unfortunately, with the labour board refusing to sanction the company for its violations, Telus was free to escalate its aggression.

Finally, however, in an exceptional ruling brought down in early 2004, the labour board ruled that Telus had engaged in a series of outrageous violations of the labour code and ordered the company to offer TWU binding arbitration so that the bitter and protracted conflict could be brought to an end. Initially the union and the company both accepted the idea of binding arbitration.

But within a month, Telus changed its mind and appealed the board decision. In a subsequent ruling, which took more than a year to bring down, the board overturned its original binding arbitration ruling. For the next 18 months, the union lobbied Members of Parliament to pressure the Minister of Labour to intervene in the vain hope that it could get binding arbitration reinstated.

Meanwhile, Telus escalated, mounting a "soft lockout" which suspended the remission of union dues, ignored the grievance and arbitration process, and initiated a series of petty harassments. The union responded by banning overtime, mounting a Super Service campaign, moving to a work-to-rule regime, and ending the dispatch of installation and repair workers from their homes. (Home dispatch saves the company the expense of maintaining parking compounds as well as an enormous amount of paid travel time.) Finally, the union initiated a series of study sessions and mini-occupations of company facilities.

All-out conflict began when Telus announced that it intended to unilaterally impose the full version of its contract, effective July 22. To pre-empt the company's move, the TWU pulled its members off the job on July 21, and the strike was on.

TOUGH QUESTIONS

Although many members are disappointed with contract, instead of pointing fingers of blame, I would argue that our energies would be better utilized tackling the following questions:

1) What actions should telecom unions be taking in the regulatory arena and elsewhere to re-establish social oversight and control over the industry?

2) What are some of the steps that must be taken to begin the process of successfully organizing the wireless sector?

3) Where are today's communications companies vulnerable financially? What are the weaknesses in their operations?

4) What can be done to reduce the effectiveness of corporations' anti-union strategies? In particular, how can we impede the electronic transfer of work? How can we reduce companies' ability to move work away from their unionized employees?

5) What kind of concrete solidarity can be extended beyond the offer of financial aid, to unions that are under the gun to strengthen them in their confrontations with aggressive corporate employers?

As of now, there are few answers to these and a host of other pertinent questions. But it is time for unions generally--and those in the telecommunications sector in particular--to begin tackling the overdue task of analyzing the forces arrayed against them and the steps that must be taken if there is to be a different outcome in such confrontations. Frustrated victims of corporate assault may be inclined to blame fellow unionists and to describe the resulting settlements as "sell-outs". But blaming particular individuals for our plight will merely postpone the collective effort we all so desperately need.

Sid Shniad is the research director at the Telecommunications Workers Union. The views expressed in this article are his alone.