No to Attacks by Telus! Yes to Fair Wages and Workers Rights!
Fire This Time Interviews TWU President Bruce Bell
By Shannon Bundock
The Telecommunication Workers’ Union (TWU) is the union that represents Telus workers across Canada. TWU workers have gone without a contract for four and a half years. Today, TWU is in the midst of a mounting fight for contract negotiations, basic labour rights and job security for Telus workers. Currently, this heated labour battle has led to attacks by Telus and job action by the union. This fight comes at a time when working people, unionists and labour unions are being attacked across the country. It is an important time for all working and poor people in Canada. Supporting working class battles like Telus workers is vital as we fight the growing neo-liberal agenda of the provincial and federal governments and further political shift of Paul Martin and Gordon Campbell to the right.
Fire This Time sat down with Bruce Bell, President of the TWU to discuss the past four years, the current stage in this battle and the struggle that the TWU is leading in defense of Telus workers.
Fire This Time: For the past four and a half years, TWU workers have been without a contract. How could this be possible? What are the reasons?
Bruce Bell: When Telus of Alberta and BC Tel merged together the Canadian Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) said that the existing contracts would remain in place. At that time there were five and now there are eight different contracts as the company has gone eastward. So we have stayed under those contracts and tried to bargain what we call a revised, respectful contract.
We took the TWU collective agreement from British Columbia and BC Tel. What we have done is try to take it and amend it if you like, to cover the rest of Canada. It’s such a good contract and it has good clauses in it. The company has been opposed to that and they want to go with a brand new collective agreement starting from square one.
We say that that’s just not right, because we are not a brand new union, this isn’t a brand new certification. It’s been around for 55 years in BC and over 100 years in Alberta and it has been unionized. We say we should be starting from where we’re at and bargaining from there. We’re willing to bargain and willing to make changes but not everything. That’s really what’s taken the bulk of the four and a half years.
The other problem is that as the company has merged and gone eastward they have been in denial. What the company is hoping to do is make most of Telus non-union. We have had to apply to the labour board and they have made some decisions. They’ve taken a long time in making those decisions with many of them being appealed by the company. That has taken the other half of the four and a half years.
We have been fairly successful with some of those decisions but they have taken a long length of time and the company has been appealing them. In fact we had the 6.6 Billion dollar purchase of Clearnet, which brought in Clearnet workers Canada wide. Those workers were brought in to the union. The company appealed that to the CIRB, they appealed that to the Federal court and now they have gone to the Supreme Court. We just found out on Thursday some good news, that the court denied them the appeal.
It’s over now and the company can get on to letting us represent some 3,000 former Clearnet folks who have no collective agreement and should be brought into the agreement that we negotiated. The company has been in denial and probably are still in denial, but it appears that they’ve exhausted their legal avenue and they will have to sit down and negotiate with us.
FTT: Last year the CIRB (Canadian Industrial Relations Board) ruled for binding arbitration, which was successfully fought against by Telus. In April of this year Telus took action against its workers through a ‘soft-lockout’. Can you tell us a bit about what the main issues are and how Telus has been attacking?
Bruce Bell: Well, with the ‘soft-lockout’ the company’s strategy was to impose some sanctions on the union and the union membership. In their view these sanctions would to get us to bargain. But the company never bargained from day one, they came in with issues and objectives, they didn’t come in with concrete proposals.
It took us about two years of complaining to the labour board. They never bargained across the table quid pro quo ‘tradesies’ – ‘you give me this, I’ll give you that’. They’ve never tried to build a collective agreement together that was a good deal. Those are the best agreements, agreements which you both build and you both feel you get something out of them. You might both feel you lost something out of them, but that’s what makes it a deal.
The company wanted to impose an agreement right from the start. That gets back to the first question; they wanted to impose a brand new agreement. They‘re saying ‘Here you’ll take this because it’s good for you and it’s good for our shareholders, and it’s good for our company’. Unfortunately it’s missing the job security and it’s missing equity amongst our membership across Canada.
The company was trying to impose this agreement, and they crossed the line in this four and a half year run. They started to deal with our membership directly, interfering with the operation of the trade union.
We complained again to the labour board about that. The labour board felt that they were actually an insidious employer. That they had undermined the union bargaining committee to the point that there is no trust left that could conclude a collective agreement. That’s what the labour board said; therefore they are ordering the company, Telus, to offer binding arbitration.
That was about a year ago. We decided after much deliberation that we would accept that. We believed it would get us out of this realm of bargaining. We believed that it would leave us on a level playing field across Canada, with the membership on one agreement. Now they are on eight different agreements. We believed that we could go on and do another round of bargaining down the road.
Well the company agreed right away, they were very happy about it. They put out press releases. Their shares went up. Fourteen days later, they made an about turn and they put in for reconsideration by the board and for a judicial review. It took over a year, and on February 2nd of this year, the Canada board came down, reversed their decision and took the binding away.
We went back to bargaining and the company came with a final offer. They have since amended this ‘final offer’ -and we say when is a ‘final offer’ a ‘final offer’? We say that the offer is no good and that it hasn’t been bargained. We say that it’s the same thing and that they were trying to impose. We want to bargain so we’re not accepting it. We’re not even taking it out for a vote; it doesn’t pass the scrutiny of even our bargaining committee. We’re not recommending it.
We’ve had over the past few years two strike votes, in ’84 and ’86. We have the solidarity of the membership and the membership has accepted that. We have had very little complaints about not taking it out for a vote. We have it on our website, so the membership can see it. We also did a counter proposal and that’s on our website. So the members have access to both.
Now we’re in job action. The company, on April 25th about two months ago, started their job action on us. This was what we call a ‘soft-lockout’. They didn’t lock the doors, they said ‘come to work’, but they started taking things out of the collective agreement. They took out wage service credits. Just like what you and I talked about - if you start at fourteen dollars an hour you’ll eventually move up over time. They’ve taken away wage service credits, they’ve taken away first day paid sick, they’ve taken away scheduling of some hours, scheduling of some holidays. They’ve also quit collecting union dues and submitting them to the union. The list goes on. There are fourteen different items and every few weeks they keep adding more.
In response we started an overtime ban a few weeks ago and a ban on relieving management. Now we’ve asked all our members who take company vehicles home to bring them back to Telus. They take vehicles home so they can go to their first job in the morning right from home and they go from their last job home – so it’s a productivity gain for the company. We’ve asked all the vehicles to go back to the company.
We’re looking at some other job actions as time goes by. The company’s idea is to put pressure on us. We say we’ll put pressure on the company, and we say let’s get back to the bargaining table and negotiate. You’re up to speed on where we’re at right now. It’s pretty tense; the pressure is mounting on both sides.
FTT: Since beginning negotiations this year, what has Telus offered TWU workers and what are the main problems with this offer?
Bruce Bell:The main problems with the offer are really what we call collective agreement language. What we’re after is job security. We’re a union and what a union goes after are things like contracting out. The contract we have and the contract we want to keep to cover everyone in Canada is that if the work is normally and regularly performed, then the work cannot be contracted out, without the agreement of the union. If the union doesn’t agree then we have a third party who will make the decisions.
We’ll sit down with this person, he’s on the committee. The committee is four from the company, four from the union and this neutral person, who is an arbitrator, a lawyer. The neutral person gets to make the decision.
So the company can come in and say, ‘We want to contract out welding’. We would say, ‘Well, we have welders. So if you contract out welding, then how will we get that protection?’ We ask, ‘Why do you want to contract out, for how long and when?’ The company, if they put together a good case, well, maybe we’ll let it be contracted out. Maybe it’s one job and it’s stainless steel welding. So the committee works on it based on the specific case. If the company says, ‘We want to contract out all of our line people, who put cable in the air and in the ground.’ We’ll say, ‘No, that’s not going to be contracted out.’ It then goes to the arbitrator and the arbitrator decides.
It’s about work that is normally and regularly ours. If it’s some specialized cabinetwork, then there is a chance it gets contracted out, because it’s not our normally performed work.
We have a number of items that are pre-agreed to; it’s not that the company can’t contract out at all. We have protected the main telephone work: the operators, the serve reps, and the craft. That’s why we’ve still got 15,000 members. That’s our number one: contracting out.
Number two is work jurisdiction. Work that is done inside the union as opposed to work that is done outside the union. The company always brings in managers and consultants that steal your work. You don’t lose your job, but they steal a portion of your work. And steal is the right word. It happens especially with computers. You might have been a serve rep, or a clerical person who did a lot of a job that the computer has now taken away. It’s hidden in the technology, and that’s one of the problems with work jurisdiction. We also have an umpire who sits down and deals with that. That’s another committee.
We really like having a committee on work jurisdiction. The company doesn’t like that because we have a say and it slows them down. They can’t just do whatever they want to do.
The third big item is that we want wage parity. Every single job in BC is higher paid than everywhere else in Canada, for the same work and for the same company. So guess what, if you were the company, where would you move the work? You’d move it out of BC, because you can get it cheaper in Alberta, you can get it cheaper in Ontario. We want them to have the same wages, so that there is no advantage for the company to move work.
We understand that the company can do the work wherever they want but we don’t want them to have a financial gain if they move the work out of BC or any province, it could be vice-versa. Of course they’re going to have all their serve reps in Alberta, where it’s 25% cheaper. We want wage parity and we think that all workers deserve that. So wage parity is a big one. The company wants to give wage parity, but not until 2009. So they want to get a few extra years of having the cheaper wages.
FTT: What was the reaction of Telus to TWU’s counter offer?
Bruce Bell: We knew when we put the offer in that it wasn’t going to be enough for them. The idea of the offer was to show them that we’re willing to bargain. We included a lot of subject matter that they wanted, but that we did not want. Such as variable pay, flexible work hours, averaging of overtime hours. Of course they said it didn’t go far enough. Well, we knew that, we knew we could have done the whole enchilada and they would have said, ‘Well, it didn’t go far enough.’
We put it on the table to show our membership that this company is not willing to bargain. It was just a show of doing that. Yes, we had some language in there to protect us. We’re willing to bargain, but we want something back.
So we made big moves, and their view was they were ‘disappointed’. They said ‘Why don’t you vote on our offer?’
We are not voting on their offer. It was not negotiated with us, and their offer is no good. Once you vote on the offer, when do you stop voting on it?
FTT: You mentioned earlier the Supreme Court ruling that the employees which Telus gained through the purchasing Clearnet were now covered under TWU. What was your reaction to this decision?
Bruce Bell: I was happy. It was a nice Thursday. It was the long weekend and it was great, fabulous! I’m very happy about that. Now we can get on with trying to deal with those members.
With those workers the company of course had a captured audience in the workplace. They were saying that they were appealing it. Now we can move on, and they can’t hide behind that last legal hurdle. Let’s get on with dealing with it.
FTT: What do you see in the near future with this dispute? Where are we going from here?
Bruce Bell: Well geez, that’s a great question. It’s very tense right now. The company has imposed sanctions on the members. We are pushing back. So where is it going to go? Well, I think it’s going to heat up. It looks like the company doesn’t want to lock us out, because so far they haven’t. It looks like the union doesn’t want to go on strike, because so far they haven’t. We’ve had two strike votes, and we are prepared to go on strike at any time. I guess you could buy a lotto ticket if you feel lucky!
It’s just going to heat up and we’ll see what this brings. It’s a bad situation and we would rather negotiate with them. We are hoping that the company will see that as we take job action. We are hoping they’ll see as it affects the customer service, which we don’t aim to do. But what would we be doing if we were on the street? That would be an all-out. We’re trying to say, ‘Look can’t some cooler heads prevail? Can’t we get into some negotiating?’
We’ve got a proposal, all the company needs to do is pick up the phone and say ‘Let’s get back to the table, we want to talk.’ That’s something that could happen, whether it happens, I don’t know.
Usually telecommunications labour disputes are quite long. This has been four and a half years leading up. We could go back the table this afternoon, or we could be on the street. It’s a festering situation.
FTT: Finally, I want to ask the most important question - how can working people and unionists support Telus workers and help their sisters and brothers in this fight?
Bruce Bell: We have this campaign here. We call it ‘Another Wrong Number’. We’re asking people to sign up to it with their name and address and phone number and it will be kept confidential. We want people to be willing, willing to cancel one or more of their special calling features. We want people to be willing to cancel their automatic billing, to go to regular billing. The automatic billing is just guaranteed for the company. You know, 80% of the billing just comes in automatically and it’s not labour intensive. If you change your billing, wow, that’s just huge! It causes the company nothing but problems. They just about can’t handle it; it just about shuts them down.
Also, for long distance, consider changing your carrier there, and your internet, go with somebody else. I want to stress that this is just in case we’re on the street. We want people to be willing to consider it now. If we do end up being in a full-blown lockout or strike, we would contact you and say, ok, now is a good time, now that we’re on the street. We’re trying to get folks to do this.
While we’re busy doing that we have also gone to a lot of the unions, the conventions, we’ve gone to the labour councils. We’re also going to the city councils. Vancouver, Burnaby, and North Vancouver have all put through motions of support. Telus is not everybody’s favourite company out there.
Telus is doing well financially, and we hope they want to continue doing that. This is just one of those black flies that get on the big moose and irritate it. Telus is the big moose and it takes a lot of black flies to make him realize that he should just deal with the union.
I would stress that we’re not asking for the world. We’re just asking for a revised, respectful collective agreement with regards to job security and contracting out and protection for the workers.
FTT: Thank you so much for your time Bruce and good luck in the fight!
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