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Tense Times on the Telus Lines

'Flying pickets' face replacement workers and hired spies.

Geordie Clarke 28 Sep

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Tuesday's return to the bargaining table by Telus management and the Telecommunications Workers Union (TWU) comes after weeks of escalating pressure tactics by both sides, sometimes flaring into violence.

The union has sent "flying pickets" to chase and interrupt Telus service visits. Telus has hired security guards to spy on picketers. There have been more than 50 TWU members arrested for violating court injunction orders while picketing. Telus has fired 15 workers for alleged bad behaviour on the picket line. And Telus's hired guards have scuffled with and allegedly injured picketers.

If such manoeuvres have played a role in pushing the two sides back to bargaining, no one is hitting the pause button, and the tactics are only likely to become more aggressive should talks break off again, say observers.

'A very inflammatory step'

The TWU's flying pickets have waged a daily battle against Telus Corp by picketing any location where work occurs for the Burnaby, B.C.-based corporation. That includes, for example, a service call to install or fix phones at a retail outlet. At one hardware store, an instant picket line prevented the Telus repair personnel from carrying out their order after the proprietor asked them to leave.

Some TWU members worry that without mobile picketing, some people will never know about the dispute. "As long as people get a dial tone, they really don't care," said one picketer interviewed.

Peter Massy, vice president of the TWU, says the goal of the flying pickets is to hurt Telus's ability to maintain service levels, coercing the company back to negotiations.

"The objective there is to restrict the ability of the telephone company to run its operations," Massy said. Some of the targets of the flying pickets are replacement workers, brought in by Telus in September in an effort to maintain service levels and fulfill customer orders. TWU members are outraged by the hires they call "scabs."

Ken Thornicroft, professor of law and labour relations at the University of Victoria, says it is rare for employers to hire replacement workers, as it is a major cause of picket line violence. "That, in my mind, is a very inflammatory step to bring in replacement workers," said Thornicroft. "It's administratively difficult and it generally does nothing to enhance the labour relations climate," he said.

Federal allowances

Under the BC Labour Code, it is illegal to hire replacement workers and that "tends to limit the potential for picket line violence," said Thornicroft.

Telus, however, falls under federal rules. The Canada Labour Code allows employers to hire replacement workers only if doing so does not undermine the union. Telus says they are hiring replacement workers only to keep up with customer demand.

Picket line violence also occurs when union members decide to cross pickets and return to work.

Telus claims that 56 percent of unionized employees in Alberta have crossed the pickets, while the TWU says the figure is closer to 40 percent. In B.C., there have been no instances of unionized employees crossing pickets.

"Employees crossing a picket line is a very anomalous situation. It generally does not happen," said Thornicroft.

Hired surveillance

Telus is not just hiring replacement workers - they have also contracted AFI International Group Inc., a company that provides security and intelligence services to companies involved in labour disputes.

AFI has developed a reputation as a strikebreaking firm among unions across Canada.

Daryl-Lynn Carlson, of AFI International Group Inc.'s corporate communications department, confirmed that AFI is working with Telus, but said AFI's policy is "not to discuss or disclose any client project."

Founded by Darrell Parsons in 1986, AFI works only in labour disputes. The company website describes the firm as focusing "exclusively on services that enable employers to manage work stoppages due to strikes, lockouts or plant closures safely and securely."

AFI uses video and photographic surveillance to collect evidence that will uphold court injunctions.

"Any time you have any kind of interruption and you're gonna go to court and ask the court to enjoin certain behaviour, you need evidence," said Thornicroft. "In the modern era, a picture is worth a thousand words," he said.

AFI guards are there to ensure picketers abide by the court injunction, agreed Peter Massy, vice-president of the TWU.

"The AFI guys are there to run interference and monitor what's going on once [the Telus workers] get to a location," he said.

But the cameras roll even if the pickets are peaceful, something that makes the average person nervous.

"It's fairly intimidating for our members to be constantly filmed," said Massy. "It's predominantly females on the picket line."

Intimidation charged

Security guards are not a new sight on picket lines. In fact, they are as much a picket line tradition as burn barrels and placards.

"Security guards have quite an ancient history in terms of labour disputes and it's not a particularly pretty one either," said Thornicroft. He said firms like Pinkerton's in the United States were known for their brutality.

However, "In recent years, the use of security guards is quite anomalous," he said.

British Columbia and Quebec are the only two provinces where replacement workers are illegal. In other jurisdictions, security firms like AFI have been kept busy by employers eager to maintain their operations when labour disputes appear on the horizon.

In 2004, Aliant Inc, the telephone provider for the Maritimes, contracted AFI's services for its five-month-long dispute with its unionized employees.

During that dispute, there were complaints that AFI security guards got away with intimidation tactics.

Chuck Rouse, president of Local 506 of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, says AFI security guards hired by Aliant wrongfully intimidated picketers and constantly recorded them.

"It wasn't unusual for them to be right in your face, yell at you and then turn the camera on and try and record your reaction," he said.

Guards accused of assault

In recent weeks TWU members have complained that security guards working for Telus have assaulted picketers.

Massy said there have been two confirmed incidents of violence against picketers conducted by security guards. Ken Birzneck, a TWU member who has Multiple Sclerosis, was knocked over and stepped on by security guards. In another incident, guards pushed a TWU member into a bus stop, causing cuts and bruises.

"Even if [Mr Birzneck] swore at them and called them scabs, (that) doesn't justify knocking him down and stepping on him," said Massy.

The website for Local 213 of the TWU has posted videos of incidents where security guards working for Telus are alleged to be unjustly intimidating and assaulting union members.

"They're definitely getting more aggressive and that's consistent with their organisation," Massy said.

AFI's controversial exec

Evert Hoogers, Candian Union of Postal Workers national union representative, has deeper concerns.

AFI recently hired Michael Thompson, former Canada Post head of security and investigations for the Metro Toronto area, to an executive position. Thompson was implicated in the illegal surveillance of CUPW members, which included recording union meetings and telephone conversations, the illegal observation of union members' mail and breaking into union leaders' cars. Thompson's actions emerged in Andrew Mitrovica's 2002 book, Covert Entry.

"[Michael Thomson] had the leading role in the orders to carry out the illegal spying operations," said Hoogers. "The operation included the incredible investigation of peoples' lives and a number of other activities that have to be described as utterly illegal," he said.

In an August 29, 2005 press release, CUPW National President Deborah Bourque said she is "worried the hiring of Thompson may have ugly consequences for TWU activists."

But for Rouse, the security guards on the Aliant picket lines were "more of an annoyance than anything else." He said AFI's involvement in the Aliant labour dispute ultimately had little influence on the outcome. The dispute was settled by an independent mediator.

Signs of effectiveness

AFI vehicles regularly follow flying picket squads that are following Telus vehicles. Union members involved in the flying pickets maintain their tactic is making it hard for Telus to keep up with its workload in September, which is the company's busiest month.

The threat of pickets has stopped many Telus jobs around BC and Alberta. In addition, fewer people on the job means less work will be completed.

"I don't understand how Telus can claim that it's keeping up with orders when we drive all over the place and we can't find them (the Telus workers)," said one flying picketer.

"[Telus] can't do any installs. They just don't have the manpower for it," said another, who has been a Telus employee for 36 years. He, like others interviewed for this article, asked that his identity remain anonymous.

George Heyman, president of the BCGEU, said his union is working with the TWU and the BC Federation of Labour on strategies that will pressure Telus into returning to negotiations. One strategy is to prevent Telus workers from doing work on the extensive phone systems in government buildings, a job that occurs on an ongoing basis. A work stoppage in the civil service could cause a large number of BCGEU members to walk off their jobs.

"They [government managers] are inviting a work disruption if they allow Telus scab workers on-site to work on the phone system," said Heyman. "Our members have a right not to work behind a picket line," he said.

Both Heyman and the Massy said there have been several occasions where Telus employees were caught working inside government buildings and were told to leave before the work was complete.

Telus was contacted for comment on several occasions, but failed to return phone calls.

Geordie Clarke is a freelance writer based in Victoria.  [Tyee]

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