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News

Report from the Telus Frontlines

As dispute turns to war, the battlefronts multiply.

By Carrie-May Siggins 22 Aug 2005 | TheTyee.ca

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As the labour dispute between Telus and the Telecommunications Workers Union settles into all-out war, the battlefronts multiply.

On the airwaves, Telus seeks to block union ads from running. In cyberspace, Telus has blocked web sites carrying union messages. On the picket lines, the number of strikers is highly disputed by the two sides. At call centres, Telus strives to reassure callers that operations are running smoothly, and union reps claim the system is fraying and breaking down in places.

The stakes are high. The union says Telus insists on a contract that dooms too many BC and Alberta jobs by allowing global outsourcing. Despite current high profits, the company claims outsourcing is necessary to ”modernize” its operations. Already the two sides have gone nearly five years without a contract, and observers say the lock-out could last months, or even a year or longer, a bruising war of attrition.

Here’s a report on how that war is being waged on the various battlefronts:

The media battlefront

On Monday, August 15, the Telecommunication Workers Union, (TWU) and the Federation of BC Labour held a press conference to announce the launch of their most recent attack on telecommunications giant Telus -- a radio ad campaign promoting consumer action.

The campaign, launched in Alberta and BC encouraged Telus subscribers to cancel not their services but features on their telephone service such as call display. The campaign will cost the organizations around $260,000 for seven ads.

The ads are voiced by real people‚ rather than actors. In one, a TWU member says “Service isn’t important to Telus. Telus wants more computer voices, creating longer waits and plans to send our jobs away and they don’t seem to care.”

In another, a senior citizen explains, “I really feel for the people locked out. They have spent their entire working lives building that phone company. It’s not right. Telus makes so much money and now wants to send local jobs away.”

Each ad signs off with the phrase, “Still think the future is friendly?” a riff on Telus‚ slogan.

“These are real people,” says Jessie Uppal of the Federation of BC Labour. “It gives a human face to the dispute...Too often the people who get really impacted are ignored.”

Uppal says that because Telus refuses to bargain with the union, tactics such as these are needed to pressure the company into approaching the table.

Telus has filed an injunction to prevent the union from playing on the company’s slogan in those ads.

And CHQR and CKRY, run by Corus Radio, refused to run three of the seven ads, while Rogers-owned CHFM and CKIS refused to run any. Corus has said the rejected ads are libelous, and Rogers didn’t return phone calls for comment.

Telus has also censored pro-union websites by making them inaccessible to visitors, and in doing so, blocked another 766 unrelated sites.

The public opinion battlefront

The ad campaign by the TWU and the Federation of BC Labour is part of a wider plan of consumer action to tap into and build public support. It is not a boycott, as they aren’t asking customers to withdraw their services all together. But it is trying to hit Telus in the pocket book.

“It’s clear that the only thing Telus will listen to is its bottom line,” says Uppal. “The only way to impact the bottom line is consumer action.”

Drew McArthur, vice president of Corporate Affairs at Telus, believes that the tactic is hurting the very people the organizations represent. “It really does undermine the very job security that the union wants to protect. So it doesn’t make logical sense that you would undermine the revenue that supports the jobs.”

“Cutting features means less revenue for the company, means less ability to pay employees, means undermining job security.”

But union reps say such criticisms are meaningless because their members’ jobs are already on the chopping block if Telus management gets its way.

“For them to claim that we were hurting them,” says Uppal, “I’d like to see that the appropriate guarantee that the jobs are there. But they won’t provide that. That’s what the dispute’s about. If you could guarantee these workers had a job to go back to, that argument might have sway. But it doesn’t if you’re not willing to guarantee these jobs will exist.”

The promise of job security is at the heart of the now four and a half year contract dispute, which resulted in a lockout on July 23rd. Telus maintains that the promise of job security is written into the contract already, but the union says there are loopholes.

Telus already plans to cut more than 300 union jobs and replace them with outsourced contractors, but claims that these are “non-core functions, functions better performed by other companies,” says McArthur. “Jobs need to evolve into contractual work due to changing technologies.”

Those contracted jobs, McArthur says, will not compromise the jobs of union-member employees already at Telus. “We’ve said repeatedly, guaranteed employment security is in the contract. No employee will lose their job at Telus, as a result of contract notes,” says McArthur.

Peter Massey, vice president of the TWU, says that the job security at Telus is threatened by the language used in the contract.

The proposed contract states that “no regular employee will be laid off as a direct result of the company contracting out work normally and currently performed.” The problem with the way the statement is phrased, says Massey, is that the workers whose jobs may be lost as an indirect result of work that’s been contracted out are not protected.

“If you’re performing support work for another function, and they contract out that function, the language doesn’t protect your job,” says Massey.

“The offer on the table,” says McArthur, “is generous, fair and reasonable by any standards, and represents today’s market place. Looking out, we need to compete with the new technologies and new companies that are coming into our business. When the old contract was negotiated, Shaw wasn’t even in our business. Now they have voice over IP. Guess what? They don’t even need our line. That underlines the very traditional business we have since built on. We need to be prepared for the changes of the future."

The customer service battlefront

Since the lockout, there have been numerous reports of poor customer service at Telus. Phone lines have been disconnected, then not reconnected for days. In some cases, charges remain on the bill. Although in many cases, service over the telephone has been prompt, people have complained of being helped by managers or others who are fielding calls in areas for which they aren't adequately trained.

One customer, who is also a locked out employee and had their line accidentally disconnected, writes in a feedback form distributed by the TWU, “We had no dial tone on our main line this morning. I was able to get through to the business office first thing this morning, shortly after 8AM, again, with little delay. At least they are getting that part right. The manager that helped me was pleasant but didn't really know what to do. I walked him through the process of canceling the OUT Order.”

Greg Higgs, an environmental consultant in Bella Coola, had a line canceled rather than a second one installed as he had requested. Telus offered to set them up with a cell phone, although Bella Coola is outside of cell phone range. It was a full week before his line was reconnected.

“Finally,” writes Higgs in an email to The Tyee, “I complained to the CRTC, and then 15 minutes later I got an email from Telus saying that they would fix it, and it was working by the next day.”

“The problem that plagues many people,” Higgs continues “is that Telus holds a monopoly throughout much of rural BC. We have nobody else to turn to to get alternate service.”

Kyuquot, an isolated area is Northern BC, lost service for a full five days. Telus claimed that the cause was bad weather, but one equipment installer disagrees.

“I am one on the equipment installers employed by Telus that did the actual installation of the SR500 radio concentrator that services the community of Kyuquot approximately 5 years ago,” he writes in an email that was later distributed on a listserve by the TWU.

“I assure you that the phones in people's homes in this community are the same as you will find in Victoria, Vancouver or Edmonton, and the last time I checked, your desk phone was not affected by the weather.”

Telus’s McArthur is adamant that services have now, after a period of disruption, returned to normal. “Our service has returned to 100 per cent,” says McArthur. “In our call centers, Telus is delivering excellent customer service today, meeting all of our indications.”

But locked-out workers have made complaints to the CRTC that their own requests for phone feature changes or cancellations of services are being ignored.

An internal Telus document called “Team Member Guidelines for Potential Work Stoppage” states that although Telus will continue to provide services to locked out workers, “changes and additions will not be processed during work stoppages.” What the statement refers to is a deal where Telus provides employees who have been at the company for seven years or more receive 30 per cent discount on their residential service. They cannot request free or discounted services.

“And that’s fine,” says Massey. “But what we're finding is that members are calling to change services, and Telus is saying we're not going to allow you to.” According to the TWU, many employees who are cutting services such as the Internet and call display in order to save money during the dispute are being told they aren't allowed.

The picket line battlefront

In the fight to hold the picket line and resist the use of replacement workers, the TWU is deploying “flying squads”. Groups of locked out employees and union representatives follow Telus replacement workers and managers to disrupt their work and set up mobile picket lines.

“It’s to remind them whose job it is their doing,” says Sid Schniad, research director at the TWU.

By “making people less willing to do union members’ jobs,” the tactic will shorten the dispute. “In addition to getting tired of working 12-15 hour days, this increases the scabs’ stress levels. Every little bit helps,” says Schniad.

McArthur calls tactics such as these “absolutely deplorable actions.”

This is not the first time McArthur has accused locked out workers of playing dirty. In a Tyee article, McArthur accused some picketers who were upset by the Telus Idol video of “disrespectful behavior” of their own.

Company officials have repeatedly pointed to what they call a weak presence on the picket lines. Telus CEO Darren Entwistle declared that “70 percent” of Telus workers are on the job.

“You have to be very careful with those numbers,” says Schniad, who states that the estimate includes all Telus employees, including the half of Telus’s workforce who are non-union managers, plus replacement workers brought in to do union members‚ work during the dispute.

On August 9th, the TWU claimed that 78 per cent of their members signed up for picket pay, a supplementary wage for those on the line. The number doesn’t include those who have sought other employment during the strike.

Some believe that Telus’ ultimate goal is bigger that simply passing their proposed contract. In July, Telus filed two injunctions against picketers to, among other things, keep them 10 meters away from entrances. “The barrage of injunctions by Telus is just one piece of the company’s overall plan to break the union,” according to a TWU press release.

“That’s just bunk,” says McArthur.

Carrie-May Siggins is on staff at The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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