Struggle for the Rights of All Working People:
Support the Telus Workers Strike!
By Ivan Drury
In BC, flag waving fans of Telus are about as common as proponents of rush hour traffic or line ups in hospital emergency rooms, and through the last couple years most people in BC have grown as familiar with 45 minute waits on the phone to pay our phone bills (or beg for an extension) as we are with sitting in traffic or in an emergency room. It is the memory of hold music made to erode patience and monstrous phone bills that first come to mind when we hear about the Telus lockout, and this is no accident. Even before the full lockout began on July 21st Telus began an ambitious “public relations” campaign to spin the company’s well-earned negative image against the union workers.
According to Telus’s media story, well stated in an article in the ‘Business’ section of the Vancouver Sun way back in January 2004, “To survive in the digital era, industry leaders like Telus need to respond to change with unprecedented speed and agility, to allow the organizational equivalent of a 747 to perform fighter-jet maneuvers demands more than simple tinkering. It requires deftly and humanely trimming operations…” Of course, the writer (on behalf of Telus) argues in the main that these changes are being made by a “visionary management” and are opposed every step of the way by the “Jurassic” / “Bigtooth” / “small time” / “smokestack” union. Variations on this line run through all of Telus’s company materials: they, the “value creating” “growth oriented” company, are for technological progress. And, on the other hand, the Telecommunications Workers’ Union (TWU) is “unable to cope in a deregulated, global, market-driven industry,” and is therefore against progress. However, this media spin is just a fiber-optic neon curtain covering the same old landscape of the historical struggle between bosses and workers. The Telus lockout is not a matter of the union being for-or-against technological advance; it is a struggle of the profits and power of capitalists against the rights and lives of workers. It is also an important struggle that could play a major part in determining the future struggles of all working and poor people in BC.
Telus attacks on the TWU
The key to understanding the Telus lockout is to look at the issue itself: the irresolvable conflict between Telus’s profit driven agenda and the rights of the TWU workers.
For five years Telus has refused to negotiate with the Telecommunications Workers’ Union (TWU), leaving Telecommunications workers in BC and Alberta without a contract. On April 25th 2005 Telus began to “implement certain lockout measures in an attempt to encourage the settlement of a replacement collective agreement” that included cutting back wages, rolling back benefits and contracting out jobs altogether. Telus CEO Darren Entwistle announced that the company-imposed contract would come into effect in full force at 12:01am on July 22nd. Left with no choice, on July 21st the TWU responded to these attacks with job action, exposing the lock-out in full and setting up picket lines outside all Telus locations in BC and Alberta.
The roots of this lockout go back to the merger of Telus and BC Tel in October of 1998. At that time BC Tel was a larger company than Telus but the “merger of equal partners” took the name Telus because it was better suited to the company’s international “aggressive growth” strategy. The press release issued by the company at the time defined growth as “most importantly, expanding our customer base beyond our provincial boundaries.” For this imperialist business plan, one that saw Telus quickly rise to the second largest telecommunications company in Canada, the company saw the TWU – and especially the TWU in BC – as their greatest enemy.
Telus worker, A Proud History
This is because the TWU workers in BC had fought out and won incredible strikes and job actions against their former employer, BC Tel, throughout the 1990’s. The victories of these strikes had secured BC Tel workers the best protections against contracting out of any telecommunications company in North America. These collective agreement protections insulated telecommunications workers in BC against Telus’s drive to contract out call centres to other countries – most notably to non-union workers in India and the Phillipines.
With the merger of BC Tel and Telus, the TWU gained thousands of members in Alberta and then, when Telus took over a major phone company in Quebec and the national company Clearnet, thousands more nationally. However, horrified that such a growth in the union would strengthen the position of the workers against the company; Telus launched an offensive against the TWU. A series of legal battles took place in the labour board around the main question: the strength of the TWU against Telus, comparative to other telecommunications unions in Canada and especially on the question of contracting out jobs.
After much to-ing-and-fro-ing, the labour board ruled that while the TWU was to take over the union certification of all the companies Telus gained in Canada, their BC contract with the company would not extend to their new members. Rather than recognizing the TWU’s collective agreement with Telus as applicable to all employees of Telus, the Labour Board ruled that every previously existing company’s contract with their employees was to remain the same; that the TWU was to merely take over the administration of these different agreements until a new agreement could be reached. However, despite the ruling from the labour board demanding it, Telus refused to hand over the names or positions of the thousands of employees it had gained in its $6.6 Billion buy-out of Clearnet Cellular in 2000.
Telus workers’ jobs in BC are protected from being contracted out to non-union workers, but not against being farmed out to other TWU members (or supposed members, as with the former-Clearnet workers) in Ontario or Quebec where the provisions against contracting out don’t stand. Once moved out east where they are not protected, these jobs can then be contracted out to union-busting companies in Canada or Telus subsidiaries internationally. For the five years that Telus has refused to negotiate a new collective agreement with the TWU, they have not been idle. They have been frantically snatching up phone companies and contracting out jobs through this back door, unguarded by the TWU-BC contract, buying time and gaining what ground they can against the TWU, knowing that it will be much harder for the union to win back rights for workers than to protect rights already in place.
Lockout! And the TWU strikes back
“[Telus’s actions are] insidious and designed to undermine the union bargaining committee.”
- - A Chair of the Canada Industrial Relations Board in finding against Telus
In 2003, the labor relations board found that Telus had violated the Canada Labour Code by bargaining directly with employees over the head of the union. In 2004, the board passed this ruling again. However, in neither instance did the board press Telus with any penalty. Then, this spring the labour board forced Telus to give the TWU the names of all former Clearnet employees. The credit card that Telus had been using to buy time had finally maxed out, and they were forced to act. In response to the TWU’s demand of wage parity for all Telus employees in Canada and a collective agreement in favor of all TWU members, including and especially the protections against contracting out, Telus began their lockout of TWU members in BC and Alberta.
On top of the struggle and gains of the TWU against the company, Telus has broader economic reasons for locking out Telus workers now. Although Telus’s profits grew by 49% between 2003 and 2004 (while employees wages grew 0%), the company’s propaganda about an increasingly competitive marketplace is partly true. Telus is one of the hands of big Canadian capitalism that is reacting to an international economic crisis by reaching out into the international marketplace. Telus is therefore vulnerable to the vicious whipping winds of imperialism that can change direction with the cracking of knuckles. In January of this year “Telus International” invested in a call centre in the Philippines, where they boast of hiring only 5% to 10% of all applicants every month and have little to worry about in the way of unions. At the same time, at the same press conference in fact, Telus International also announced that they were establishing their world headquarters in Singapore to show “a strong endorsement of our key value propositions and a further boost to our status as a leading Asia-Pacific telecoms hub.”
Telus, an Anti Union, Anti Labour Company
But all their “growth” is, in reality, high stakes gambling and investment. For example, immediately after Telus CEO Darren Entwistle bought Clearnet Cellular for $6.6 Billion in 2000, the bottom fell out of the stock market and within 2 months of this investment, the value of all of Telus had fallen below the price tag of Clearnet. In a desperate bid to continue Telus’s monopoly position in BC and Alberta, Entwistle responded by cutting a third of Telus’s employees, mostly through buyout. Telus hopes to rake in billions through their imperialist adventures, but on the international market the stakes are even higher and Entwistle cannot afford to keep a loose cannon at home. In order to maintain monopoly in BC and Alberta, Telus must compete with the crawling giants (Sprint, Microcel, Rogers etc…) who are seeking a place in Telus’s market. To do this, they must go “beyond provincial [and national] boundaries.” But, at the same time, to adventure abroad, they must make sure all is quiet on the home front. This means taking out the TWU.
Since the full lockout began, the struggle between Telus and the TWU has intensified. On July 21st, the labour relations board found again, for the third time, that Telus had violated the Canada Labour Code, and again neglected to penalize Telus. The company has held to its position that any contract with the TWU must be re-negotiated from scratch, while the union has stuck to its guns that any contract must be based on the BC-won collective agreement that contains the measures against contracting out. Going to any lengths to avoid this, Telus has continued to refuse to negotiate at all, including refusing TWU’s request for binding arbitration. They have countered TWU’s public information campaigns with slander, lies and even the censorship of a website that has been launched by TWU supporters, www.voicesforchange.com. However, even these company maneuvers are stumbling. On July 28 the BC Supreme Court ruled that Telus must lift the block it had placed on its Internet servers against the Voices for Change website.
Union and Workers Fight Back
Telus’s goal is to increase profits by lowering wages. To do this they must break the TWU directly by refusing the union’s collective bargaining rights. If this attack on the most fundamental of all rights of labour organizing succeeds, the implications for the labour movement overall could be staggering. This is the reason that the feeling at the picket lines and rallies in support of the TWU have a feeling reminiscent of the Hospital Employees Union strike in 2004; the attacks on the TWU are the opening cannons of a new level of attacks on all unions in BC, and therefore the struggle against these attacks is for the rights and future of the whole union and working class movement.
Picket lines are up at every Telus office in BC and Alberta, and many Telus stores. The TWU, working people and the labour movement are responding to Telus’s increasing attacks with an increasingly unified resistance that is visible at all these picket lines and the support rallies being called by the BC Federation of Labour. After all, the economic laws that are dictating Telus’s “aggressive growth” policies (attacks on workers at home and abroad in the name of imperialist free market competition) apply to all capitalist business in BC, Alberta and the world. If Telus’s direct attacks on the TWU’s collective bargaining rights are allowed to pass, then it will effectively issue a license to all capitalists for open season on unions in Canada. All unions and all working and poor people in BC and across Canada must stand with the TWU now to demand their bargaining rights, an end to contracting out of union jobs, and the arch-enemy of big business attacks on workers everywhere, solidarity… forever.
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