Canada: The Telus workers declare they’ve had enough! - The Telecommunications Workers Union members hit the picket line across BC and Alberta

Telus workers across BC and Alberta have been on the picket lines since Thursday July 21st, making it clear that they will not roll over and take the offer that the company is trying to impose. In five years without a contract, the members of the Telecommunications Workers Union have put up with Telus stalling, conniving, and repeatedly bargaining in bad faith, in a blatant attempt to break the union. Telus workers across BC and Alberta have been on the picket lines since Thursday July 21st, making it clear that they will not roll over and take the offer that the company is trying to impose. In five years without a contract, the members of the Telecommunications Workers Union have put up with Telus stalling, conniving, and repeatedly bargaining in bad faith, in a blatant attempt to break the union. Contrary to the big business effort to convince us that unions are all about negotiating greedily high wages and benefits, the most important role that unions play is actually in the realm of job security. If you do your job to the best of your ability and serve the company well, you deserve to come back tomorrow and the next day. It is this job security that Telus takes issue with and is calling “outdated contract language”. The company wants a collective agreement which “allows it the flexibility to compete on an even playing field with its competitors” (Hainsworth, Yahoo Canada News, June 24). In other words, they want to be able to contract out work previously done by union members, to non-union workers who can be paid less, whether here in Canada or overseas. “It’s about workers’ right to job security and a decent standard of living”, say the folks at TWU Hotline, “versus Telus’s unrestricted corporate greed” (www.twu-canada.ca, July 21). The Telus workers recognize that without anti-contracting out language in their contract, they may as well not have a contract, because the company will simply argue that in order to compete, they must contract out their work to the lowest bidder, which certainly will not be a union company. This is the strategy that the capitalists are using around the world to get rid of that one last “thorn in their side” – the union – organized workers who they rightly see as a hindrance to their ever-increasing profit at all costs. “We’ve tried every imaginable way to work out some kind of accommodation with the company,” says the TWU, “but the people who are running their show want to break our union.”

On Tuesday July 12th, Telus announced that it would unilaterally implement and begin imposing the April 13th contract offer that had never been negotiated by the union’s bargaining team, and was therefore not brought to the membership for ratification by vote. In response, TWU president Bruce Bell made it very clear that since “the Telus proposal does nothing to address the union's issues over contracting out”, “the union had no choice but to escalate its job actions” (CBC News, www.cbc.ca, July 18). Beginning Friday, July 22nd, TWU members would be considered to be working under the imposed contract – end of story. But after almost five years of bending over backwards in a futile attempt to deal civilly with the company, the members were not going to take this lying down. Increased intimidation by the bosses, including threats of closing down offices, led the union to set up picket-lines eighteen hours earlier than the original July 22nd plan. Since the unionized workers cannot work under an imposed contract, they are considering this a lock out.

While wages are not a key issue in this dispute, wage parity is. In a classic effort to divide and conquer, this telecommunications giant has made several unscrupulous attempts to create a rift between the workers. “Telus is trying to drive a wedge between different groups of our members by offering bribes to some of them”, says Bell (CBC News, www.cbc.ca, July 18). The company has offered increased signing bonuses to craft employees, who are mostly male, while there are “no comparable increases for workers in predominantly female classifications”, like clerical and operator service workers. Recent intimidation included threats to discipline workers who participated in union-sanctioned study sessions last week. The company has attempted to “drive a wedge between the members in Alberta and those in BC” (TWU Hotline, July 18), “anticipating that people in Alberta would not be as union-oriented as those in BC”. “But our members have thrown a monkey wrench into Telus’s plan” says Bell, “because people in both provinces are hanging tough.” The efforts to divide and conquer have so far been in vain, as Telus workers across the board recognize that the most serious threat to their livelihood is that of contracting out.

The Telus bosses insult our intelligence when they claim that they have no plans to trade in union jobs for the discount non-union alternative. In fact, Telus International owns 70% of a company called Ambergris Solutions – located in Manila, Philippines (Telus International News, www.telusinternational.com/news4.shtml). The minimum wage where the company is located is the equivalent of less than $7.00 a day, and they specialize in customer care services, order tracking, account maintenance, up-sell, cross-sell, and many of the other services currently provided by TWU members. Under the April 13th contract offer, any job can be outsourced without negotiating with the union. No wonder Telus is so keen to cram this contract down the union’s throat – Ambergris just built another large call centre earlier this year. (TWU Important Bulletin, July 18)

It’s quite clear to the TWU members just what “flexibility” and “remaining competitive” mean to Telus. According to the Hotline, share prices increased 40% last year and Telus was “the global telecom leader in terms of revenue, earning and cash-flow grow rates” (July 21). The union comments, “maybe Telus’s competitors would do better if their collective agreements contained similarly ‘restrictive’ contracting out language”. But unfortunately, it’s the attacks and cuts in staffing and service that have led to Telus’ success on the monetary front, and they are not about to halt this union-breaking process without a fight.

This battle has been a long time coming, and given Telus’ inability to listen seriously to the concerns of their employees, it should be welcomed by all. The Telus workers have watched in horror and dismay as the quality of service has deteriorated. According to one TWU local, Telus let 9000 employees go between 2001 and 2003 alone (TWU Local 208, members.shaw.ca/twu_local208). Ironically, according to reports from Alberta, many of the workers laid off from call centres have gone on to provide stellar service for Telus’ competitors. How can it be in the company’s interests to degrade service to such an extent that even the most loyal customers are tempted to switch telecommunications companies? We have all heard, if not experienced, horror stories about hours waiting on hold, Vancouver phones not working when it rains, dud phone rentals for which there is no return centre, and whole communities without telephone service for months. All this in spite of the employees, most of whom have worked in the past for AGT, Edmonton Tel or BCTel, and are used to providing quality service. But when they are expected to do more work with fewer people, and in many cases are being replaced by automated answering services, the power to improve service is not theirs. In a March 2003 Bulletin, former TWU president Rod Hiebert expressed these concerns quite clearly:

We would all like to be spending our time building the network, assigning facilities, installing and repairing telephone, data, wireless and internet services, and generally meeting customers’ needs rather than trying to deal with angry customers’ legitimate complaints about poor service[…]

Darren [Entwistle – TELUS CEO] has stated that he made decisions to improve the competitiveness of the Company, but we all must ask – how has our competitiveness been improved by driving long term, highly trained team members out of their jobs and forcing them to join the competition in order to get work? […]

These actions have caused a serious decline in employee morale. When you feel that the Company does not appreciate you and that it is trying to take away your rights and undermine your working conditions, it is difficult to go that extra mile for them. (www.twu-canada.ca)

Clearly employee morale and customer satisfaction are not the primary concerns of the folks at the top. But shouldn’t they be? Who would disagree that there’s something seriously wrong with a company when both the employees and the customers are so unhappy? And how can anybody with a conscience rationalize laying off decently paid and dedicated workers here to replace them with workers overseas who will be paid starvation wages? Whether or not Darren Entwistle has a conscience is certainly up for debate, but there is another burning question that’s hard to ignore. Why is this allowed?

According to a July 18th TWU Bulletin, the salary of a Telus CEO works out to $3,385 per hour – $6,550,000 annually (www.twu-canada.ca). Apparently Entwistle got a 54% raise in 2003 and Telus Mobility president George Cope saw an even higher increase of 88% (members.shaw.ca/twu_local208/page3.htm). “This is absolutely outrageous,” says current union president Bruce Bell, “given the fact that the company’s customers are being seriously underserved and employees have been without a contract for five years”. Why is this allowed?

Telus, who have repeatedly been found guilty of violating the Canada Labour Code and bargaining in bad faith, have a history of ignoring the rulings of the Canadian Industrial Relations Board. In this case obviously, by attempting to impose a collective agreement that was never negotiated with the union, Telus is interfering with the TWU’s representation rights (TWU Hotline, July 21, 5:00pm). Why is this allowed?

Bell hits the nail on the head – “the Board offers nothing by way of serious remedy […] The system doesn’t work when only one party is compelled to abide by decisions.” Telus’ ability to ignore the law and the rights supposedly guaranteed by the Canadian Labour Code says a lot about the code and legal system in general. This is not the first example of the bosses’ ignoring, violating, or rewriting the law to suit their interests; they always have. The Telus workers are learning from experience that these laws do not exist to defend the rights of working people and are easily ignored if they do not protect the interests of the big business ruling class. But the company is also learning a lesson – that workers can only be pushed so far and that we have a tool more effective than any bourgeois legality to assert our right to decent treatment. The bosses can ask their friends in government to legislate and decree anything they want, making picket lines, strikes, and even unions illegal. But even if they take away the legal right, organized workers will always have the ability to stop work, hindering the flow of profit, and it is this that Telus is right to be afraid of.

Under capitalism, all that matters is the bottom line, and profits must continually increase, or a company will be out-competed. If other companies are outsourcing, Telus must outsource. Capitalism has its own logic and it flies in the face of all reason. Profits must be increased, continually, and at all costs. But the world is finite. In the case of Telus, our tolerance is finite – the tolerance of the employees and the customers has reached a breaking point, and the attempt to impose a contract is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

It’s been a long time since capitalist competition has been a good thing for ordinary people. Now it is simply a race to the bottom, and it is beginning in a very concrete way, to be challenged all around the world. There is an increasing dissatisfaction with a system that allows profit to come before job security, education, healthcare, sustainability and the livelihood of the majority of the world’s population. Working people all over the world are feeling the squeeze, as social programs are being cut, companies downsized, outsourced, and mechanized. Unions are being attacked and labour rights ignored and/or nullified, just like that, overnight, as if we hadn’t fought for more than a century to earn them. Alberta is following BC’s example in allowing children as young as twelve to go to work. In Canada and America, real wages are at an all-time low and consumer debt is so high that the majority of Canadian families owe more than they earn or own. All of this will need to be paid back, with interest, at a time when social services are being gutted and service fees are the order of the day. The capitalists are desperate to squeeze the last drops of profit from a parched working class. But they can only push so far, and the Telus workers’ struggle is proving this.

This lock-out can have incredible results. Management’s unbridled intimidation of TWU members last week shows how much the company feels is at stake. They realize the power that the union holds – its ability to halt telecommunications in western Canada. The effect will be devastating to the bosses. They don’t want British Columbians and Albertans to switch service providers any more than the TWU members do (arguably less, since so much personal gain is at stake). Even the union’s leadership can smell this power and are a little bit afraid. The members of the Telecommunications Workers’ Union can bring the company to their knees with relative ease. And a triumph would set an example for other workers in the same way that the UBC Teaching Assistants, the BC Ferry workers, and the Hospital Employees Union have inspired other workers who are fed up with attacks.

Many people have connections to Telus workers involved in this struggle. Many British Columbians know somebody who was on the picket lines with the HEU last fall. All of these union members and the people around them are experiencing a change in consciousness. Awareness changes overnight and it is the job of the rest of labour movement, and the working class and student activists to counter the company’s falsifications and the slander that will come from the mainstream media. Fightback will be supporting the Telus workers, standing beside you on the line, and doing our best to educate the public about your struggle.

July, 2005