Bell, technicians’ union reach deal

John Edwards admits that he’s relieved the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union has come to an agreement on a new five-year contract with Bell Canada.

The union’s 5,000 technicians who maintain Bell’s Ontario and Quebec networks voted Friday to back the new deal after rejecting two offers.

It was a negotiation done in an atmosphere of uncertainty of what a consortium lead by the Ontario Teachers Pension fund will do with the company if and when its offer to take Bell private is approved. A panel of Supreme Court of Canada judges will shortly decide if it will hear an appeal of a decision by the Quebec Court of Appeal that could kill Teacher’s bid, which it hopes to seal by the end of this month.

A key part of the deal between the technicians and Bell ensures job security, although there are no job guarantees.

However, Edward, the administrative vice-president of the union, isn’t finished yet with negotiating with the telco. Talks have to be finished on a contract renewal involving a different branch of the union that represents some 10,000 Bell sales and clerical staff. Settling the technicians’ contract won’t necessarily make those talks any easier, he said.

The technicians voted 59 per cent to 40.9 per cent to accept the deal hammered out this month. Seventy-nine per cent of the members voted over two weeks.

The major issues, Edwards said in an interview, were Bell’s attempts to roll back premiums and monetary benefits for working weekends and overtime. The telco said it needed those and other changes to be more competitive and meet demands for faster service from customers.

As administrative VP, the technicians’ bargaining committee reported to him. Twice Bell asked that offers be put to the members, and twice the committee recommended against acceptance. The membership agreed. Edwards and senior Bell management were brought in for the third round of bargaining, which he said was “tense on both sides” in part because of the impending privatization.

”There’s a lot of concern on the part of the membership in having job security in light of the potential sale of Bell Canada,” he said. In addition, “there was a recognition we were getting close to some sort of job action either on the part of the company or the membership,” he said.

The deal covers wage increases, protection of fringe benefit gains. There is also a gain for the union in that 50 per cent of part-time workers will be reclassified as permanent staff.

In a news release Patrick Pichette, Bell’s operations president, said the telco is “pleased to have this new contract in place” which provided the Bell with “more flexibility to meet changing customer needs.”

However, the vote was tight. Edward said that the 40.9 per cent vote against the deal was “probably one of the lower acceptance rates” over the years. The last contract, five years ago, saw only 16 per cent of the members voting against the proposed deal.

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