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When Unions Collide

Telecom workers union imposes 'soft lockout' on its own professional staff.

Tom Sandborn 21 Jul 2009TheTyee.ca

Tyee contributing editor Tom Sandborn focuses on labour and health policy issues.

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'Sinking feeling': COPE's Elaine Jackson

A long-simmering dispute between the Telecommunications Workers Union and the smaller union that represents TWU researchers and office workers, mainly in B.C., has broken down in early July into an unusual "soft lock out."

Electing to stay on the job after the lockout notice came into effect on July 10, TWU's 13 employees (represented by the Canadian Office and Professional Employees Local 15) are now facing a unilaterally-imposed situation that extends their work week by five hours paid at straight time and suspends normal grievance procedures until a final contract is negotiated.

TWU spokespeople say that the new tough line with their own employees has been forced on them by economic challenges created when Telus, a major employer of TWU members, began moving offshore work that formerly was done in Canada by union members.

Spokespeople for COPE 15 say that TWU is doing fine financially, with major growth in membership at non-Telus job sites. The office and professional workers are critical of their union employer for what they characterize as "a long list of major concession demands that frankly astounded their COPE 15 employees, amounting to a virtual gutting and re-writing of the collective agreement." Spokespeople for both unions told The Tyee in separate phone interviews that it was painful and awkward to be in a labour dispute with another union.

"We have a good working relationship with our staff," said TWU business agent and acting secretary treasurer Tamara Marshall. "It is unfortunate that it has come to this."

'A sinking feeling'

Elaine Jackson, COPE local 15 president, told The Tyee that she had "a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach at the thought of going on strike against TWU. After all, we are co-affiliates to the Fed and to the CLC. We sit near each other at labour conventions."

That said, the two sides in this family quarrel in the house of labour still seem far apart.

John Carpenter, TWU vice president, wrote in a letter addressed to the employees represented by COPE 15 and dated July 6 that: "The TWU is facing very tough financial times since the inception of our current collective agreement.

"Having used our savings to fund our labour dispute with TELUS, borrowing almost 10 million dollars from various unions, as well as our administration fund, it has been a difficult task for us to survive, but we have, and we must be fiscally responsible with our member's money," the letter continues.

"The harsh reality that we face is the steady decline in our membership over the last several years due to off shoring of work, and contracting out. TELUS has informed us they plan to have 25 to 30 per cent of their workforce off shore, with the remaining 70 to 75 per cent onshore; this is inclusive of a significant amount of contracting out to other companies that we do not collect dues from. 

"We receive notice on a daily basis on jobs leaving the bargaining unit just on July 3rd we were told 400 jobs leaving in addition to previous job losses," Carpenter's letter said.

More Telus jobs going overseas

In an email to COPE 15 members on July 10, Carpenter itemized the terms of the lockout TWU was imposing, which included a work week unilaterally increased by five hours and a refusal to recognize the grievance procedure previously negotiated between the parties.

"We regret that we are forced into taking these measures and would have rather seen this resolved at the bargaining table," he said.

TWU business agent Tamara Marshall told The Tyee on July 15 that she and her colleagues at TWU were both trade unionists and employers. Like Carpenter, Marshall cited the pressures on TWU created by Telus decisions to take work done by the TWU members off-shore to cheaper non-union environments. She said that increased TWU memberships at other employers had created more work for TWU staff, and thus the need to extend the 32.5 hour work week that staff had enjoyed since the 1970s.

"Last week," she said, "we heard that more Telus work is going to Guatemala and the Philippines."

Marshall rejected suggestions The Tyee had heard from COPE local 15 members that TWU was acting like Telus in trying to make its employees bear the brunt of economic difficulties.

"We're not at all like Telus," she said. "We're not a for-profit company. We only have so many dollars. We are a good employer. I only wish COPE would come back to the table and negotiate. They're the ones who booked out of talks."

The previous contract between TWU and COPE 15 expired at the end of 2007. Collective bargaining has been underway since mid April of this year, and recently broke down. As the stymied negotiations moved into mediation, COPE members took a strike vote, which was passed by what COPE documents call an overwhelming majority. The mediator booked out on July 3, and on July 7 TWU served 72 hour notice of their intention to lock out the office and professional staff.

'Soft lockout' defined

TWU described their move as a "soft lockout," which seems to mean that no one expects the "locked out" workers to leave the office -- just to work under the new terms defined by the employer.

COPE 15 has posted a July 10 response to John Carpenter's statements on its web site. In that document, COPE 15 business representative Barry Hodson says that "when the TWU came to the table they had rewritten the complete Collective Agreement and as part of that had made significant changes to benefits and working conditions that currently our members enjoy." He cited five hours added to the work week, a dropped vacation bonus amounting to a two per cent wage cut, and "a reduction of vacation benefits accrued to new employees," creating "a two tier agreement".

Hodson goes on to say that TWU suggestions that COPE either agree to the demanded changes or get no agreement is "a significant departure from the normal approach in Collective Bargaining."

"What TWU is demanding of its employees would be outrageous in any labour dispute," Mark Leier told The Tyee. Leier, director of Simon Fraser University's Centre for Labour Studies and a long time observer of the Canadian labour movement, said, "The fact this is happening between unions, within the house of labour, makes the situation even more tragic."  [Tyee]

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