No end in sight for Telus labour dispute

Head of the union predicts the work stoppage could last until 2006

Nearly three weeks after unionized Telus workers walked off the job in British Columbia and Alberta, neither side has been able to reach an agreement.

“I’ve been waiting for a phone call from the company to go back to the bargaining table,” Telecommunications Workers Union (TWU) president Bruce Bell told Canadian HR Reporter. “We need to get back to the bargaining table and we need to iron this out.”

But Drew McArthur, Telus vice-president corporate affairs, has told the media that the time for negotiating has passed. Chief executive officer Darren Entwistle also told analysts at the beginning of the month that the company had been preparing for the eventuality of a strike for four years, with managers well-trained to replace union workers.

While the exact language of the labour dispute is itself in dispute — management calling it a strike, the union calling it a lock-out — TWU made a pre-emptive move on July 21 against the telecommunication company’s bold plan to end a nearly five-year-long labour dispute with the union by unilaterally instituting a new contract.

“We’re in a lawful picket position” because the company is imposing the terms of a contract that hasn’t been voted on, said Bell. “We can withdraw our services and we’ve done that.”

There are also conflicting reports as to the exact number of employees on strike. Telus vice-president of business solutions Bruce Okabe told Canadian HR Reporter in July that half the unionized employees didn’t show up for work on July 21, while Bell said the majority of its members, especially in B.C., have gone with the union.

Experts expected Alberta to be the true battleground. Telus predicted that few employees would strike but Bell said only 200, or three per cent, of the 6,000 union workers in Alberta crossed the picket line.

“The support is there and we’ve proven it,” said Bell, who has also said the labour dispute could continue into 2006.

The company considered any employees who showed up for work on July 22 as tacitly agreeing to the terms of the new contract even though the 11,500 union workers had never voted on it.

“That’s not how the system works,” Toronto-based labour lawyer David Côté told Canadian HR Reporter. “In order for the contract to be accepted, the union has to vote on it.”

Okabe admitted that the company’s move to unilaterally implement the contract is unusual but said they had no other choice because the company and the union have been negotiating for more than four years without coming to an agreement.

He said the company gave the union the contract more than 18 months ago and the union continually refused to show it to its members — something that is well within the union’s rights, said Côté.

“If you’re a trade union, you’ve got the legal authority to decide whether you’re going to take a proposal to your membership and vote on it,” said the lawyer.

Bell said that the union didn’t take the contract to the workers because once they voted on it, the workers would be tied into negotiating the terms of that contract — terms he said were never negotiated in the first place.

“This is about contract language, contract protection, and job security,” said Bell. He added that the company has offered more money, in the form of annual raises of two per cent for five years, but not job protection. “The contract is just fundamentally no good.”

The trouble began in 1999 when Alberta’s Telus Corp merged with BC Tel to form Telus. BC Tel enjoyed a monopoly in the province’s telephone market and as such, employees were able to negotiate very favourable collective agreements. The TWU wanted the same deal in 2000 when their contract expired.

While the company’s revenue for 2005, a 6.2-per-cent increase for the first half of the year, gives credence to the union’s claims that Telus has been doing quite well in a market the company has called increasingly restrictive, the 86,000 local phone lines Telus lost in the past year to competitors supports the company’s claim that the market is more competitive than in the past.

Telus has said that it needs the new contract to be more flexible in order for the company to be more competitive. This flexibility would include outsourcing about 375 jobs and giving these employees three options: retrain as front-line customer service workers, redeploy to follow their old job or leave the company with a severance package. The decision, said Okabe, is solely up to the employee.

“We are absolutely guaranteeing job security,” said Okabe.

But Bell doesn’t see it that way. He said that the language in the contract regarding job security is “iffy.”

“The company said no one will lose a job as the direct result of contracting out,” but there are stipulations that employees might have to move or take a pay cut in order to keep their jobs, said Bell.

“That’s just not good enough,” he said. “We want to see job security in black and white.”

Côté said the union didn’t have to strike to refuse the terms of the contract. He said TWU could have simply written a notice to the company stating that the contract wasn’t valid as none of its members had voted on it.

Under the British Columbia Labour Relations Board, an employer is entitled to set new conditions of work if it has bargained in good faith and negotiations have reached an impasse.

However, Telus and the TWU fall under the Canada Industrial Relation Board’s purview. The federal board is still considering the issue and while there’s no timeline of when the board will render its decision. However, the CIRB has already found that Telus wasn’t guilty of union tampering or interference when it e-mailed the details of the contract directly to employees in April.

“The CIRB found that Teuls wasn’t breaking the law by going directly to the employees and communicating the offer,” said Côté. “It was legal under the circumstance.”

He said the board, which usually requires employers to communicate only with the union regarding labour issues, found that because the union didn’t reply to the company’s offer and gave no indication of when it might reply, Telus was within its legal rights to go directly to the employees with the offer.

“But it doesn’t necessarily follow that the company now unilaterally implementing the offer was legal,” added Côté.

The dispute has heated up over the past few weeks. On July 22, Telus got an injunction to bar union members in B.C. from picketing near its premises or those of its customers in a way that “blocks, obstructs or impedes” access.

That same day, Telus blocked its subscribers from two pro-union websites, Voices for Change and, that posted photos of workers crossing picket lines. Then pro-management employees and Entwistle faced off with striking workers outside the company’s Calgary office tower on July 26.

For the CIRB’s complete July 21 decision, click here.

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