Union’s OT ban illegal

Telephone workers forced to lift ban.

Unionized employees at telecommunications giant Telus Corp. who are in a fight to save jobs were ordered to lift a ban on overtime and relieving supervisory duties.

The Telecommunications Workers Union (TWU) put the ban in place after Canada’s second-biggest phone company announced it would cut between 1,200 and 2,200 jobs over the next two years. At the time of the announcement, Telus president Darren Entwistle said some employees would be put into new growth positions.

The TWU, which represents 17,000 of Telus’ 26,600 employees, imposed the ban because the company couldn’t give written assurances that the layoffs wouldn’t affect any of its members.

“In a roundabout way, they are telling us that it won’t be our members but they couldn’t give us more assurance that it wouldn’t be,” said Bruce Bell, TWU vice-president.

The layoffs are a part of the company’s plans to sell off small units like Telecom Leasing Canada, which employs some of TWU’s members.

In a speedy decision, the Canadian Labour Relations Board ruled that the ban amounted to an illegal strike and ordered the union to lift the ban.

While its members frequently do overtime shifts, Bell said in recent months there’s been an increase in hours while some employees fret over the fate of their jobs.

“There’s almost always overtime but there’s quite a bit right now. (Telus) was quick to file with the Canadian Labour Relations Board so the ban must have had them worried,” said Bell.

It’s an insecure time for labour in the telecommunications industry. Mergers, business convergence, foreign ownership, growth of technology and further deregulation of the industry are catching up to the sector.

“I think we are really starting to feel the full effects of deregulation right now. We’ll hit it really hard in the next few years,” said Bell.

The recent layoff announcements at Telus are just the latest in a growing trend towards a thinning of the telecommunications workforce in Canada. Over the last six years, more than 20,000 workers have lost their jobs because of, ultimately, deregulation, said James Kinkaid, national representative for the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP) and spokesperson for the National Alliance of Communications Unions (NACU).

NACU includes Canada’s largest telecommunications unions, including CEP, the TWU, the Atlantic Communications and Technical Workers Union and the Canadian Auto Workers Local 2000, which represents workers at AT&T. NACU represents more than 70,000 telecommunications workers in Canada.

TWU may have lost this recent battle but the unions in the telecommunications sector aren’t backing down.

“We’re building a common front. We’re sharing research and keeping ourselves informed and building a common front on negotiation issues,” said Kinkaid.

Because the government has loosened industry regulations, competition has had a grave impact on labour. Bell Canada, the country’s largest phone company, transferred 2,400 operator jobs in 1999 to a U.S.-based subsidiary of the company. The flight of those jobs was accompanied by a 40 per cent wage cut.

Foreign ownership is another threat to the industry. With the telecommunications industry becoming more global, Kinkaid said two or three major firms could eventually take over the industry worldwide.

“We have one of the most deregulated telecommunications industries in the world. If further restrictions (on foreign) ownership are stripped away you can be sure that our telecommunications industry will be gobbled up by U.S. conglomerates,” said Kinkaid.

Where once the telephone companies were just that, today, they are branching into other businesses. This “convergence” has meant that these firms are moving into new, more profitable industries and cutting back in more traditional, less profitable services.

Deregulation has also accelerated automation of the industry, making some positions obsolete.

“The degree of automation has been stimulated by deregulation, because deregulation has increased competition. It’s a fundamental change over the last 20 years,” said Vincent Mosco, professor of communications at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Technology has also made it easier and more profitable for telecommunications companies to branch into other services, like Internet connections and other “new media” services. But, these new growth areas won’t be of any use to traditional telephone workers because if the phone companies have their way, these employees won’t have access to these jobs, said Mosco.

“As these companies create new divisions and new positions, they will not make these units part of their established bargaining units. They want to keep these units separate so they don’t have to give access to (telephone workers),” said Mosco.

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