Telus and union take rough road to reconciliation

Telus Corp. and its unionized workers have averted a strike now that the employees have accepted the carrier’s offer of binding arbitration to solve a long-standing labour dispute. This latest hope of reconciliation comes after a rough week wherein the carrier slammed the union in court, and the union hit back with accusations that the carrier crossed Canada’s Labour Code.

The Telecommunications Workers Union (TWU), which represents Telus’s unionized workers, said it wasn’t easy to accept the arbitration offer last Friday.

“In light of the very lengthy term of negotiations and the incredible intransigence of the company in our attempt to negotiate a revised respectful collective agreement, the executive (of the TWU) is convinced [that binding arbitration] is clearly the option that is in our members’ best interests,” the group said in a Jan. 30 statement.

In a Feb. 2 statement Telus said, “Now that the parties have agreed to binding arbitration, the possibility of a legal labour disruption…has been avoided.” In other words, Telus’s workers will not strike. They were in a position to do so as early as Feb. 3. On Jan. 29 the TWU said 86 per cent of its members voted to strike if necessary.

Telus said the next step is to “work with the mediators and the union to select the arbitrator(s) and set the terms of reference before the arbitration process begins. The timeline for the arbitration process has not yet been determined.”

Telus has been negotiating with the TWU since 2000. Trouble started between management and the union soon after Telus merged with BC Telecom in 1999. The new entity had to consolidate a number of collective agreements. “The negotiations process has been lengthy and difficult,” Telus pointed out in a press release last week.

On Jan. 29 Telus offered binding arbitration, whereby a third party hears arguments from both sides and make a decision — a final say on the contracts that the warring factions must follow.

Telus extended the arbitration olive branch after the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) ordered the carrier to do so. The federal labour dispute body also said, in response to a TWU complaint, that Telus had breached Canada’s Labour Code, pointing out that in e-mails to employees, the carrier said “the TWU’s claims are wrong and misrepresent the facts.”

CIRB doesn’t abide that kind of language. Telus’s letters to employees “should be balanced, rather than an editorial comment about the union’s position,” according to the board’s Jan. 28 decision. CIRB decided that Telus had violated Canada’s Labour Code as a result of the opinionated correspondence, and ordered the company “to offer the union binding arbitration to resolve any outstanding items in order to settle the collective agreement between these parties.”

Meanwhile, on Jan. 30 Telus said the Supreme Court of British Columbia granted an injunction against the TWU’s ads. The TV spots used images similar to Telus’s own advertisements with catchy phrases and animals against white backgrounds, but whereas Telus’s ads were meant to entice people into using the carrier’s services, the TWU’s mocking entreaties, which ran in Alberta and B.C., told people to call Telus and complain about poor service levels.

The court said the TWU’s ads infringed Telus’s copyrighted works; it ordered the TWU to end its campaign.

It’s good news that the union and Telus have avoided a strike, judging by the words of Mark Quigley, a telecom industry analyst at The Yankee Group Canada, located in Ottawa. In his experience, strikes are hard on everyone.

During labour disruptions that he’s witnessed at other carriers, “you had office staff manning calls in the call centres, office staff doing installations. Granted, some of these guys started off doing that sort of stuff,” nonetheless it takes time for managers to reacquaint themselves with technical duties.

“It’s inevitable that there are going to be hiccups,” Quigley said. “You’ll be asking people who are developing skills to assume some of the positions that the union employees were filling. That means folks are going to be a little stretched. There are going to some effects on end users.”

Still, “you can be assured that management has been preparing for this, given how long this has gone on,” Quigley said. “They’ve been without a contract for, what, three years? Presumably they have some kind of contingency plan in place.”

A Telus representative said the carrier does have contingency plans.

Quigley said it behoves the TWU and Telus to make amends. “And at the end of the day, what affects Telus as a whole affects the union as well.”

Last year Telus faced myriad problems: fires in B.C., floods, viruses infecting the carrier’s computer networks, and a high number of customer complaints about poor quality of service. The Burnaby, B.C.-based telco recently managed to get its QoS criteria up to federally mandated levels.

According to Quigley, Telus also faces increased competition from the likes of Bell Canada and new voice-over-IP service providers; last week’s concerns that workers would strike “almost couldn’t come at a worst time for the company,” he said.

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