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A Three-Year Strike and a Bittersweet Win for Workers

A weak federal law on replacement workers gave a giant company power. The government promises change.

Zak Vescera 22 Nov 2022TheTyee.ca

Zak Vescera is The Tyee’s labour reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

When Mikhail Alfaro went on strike, his newborn daughter was only two months old.

This year, when she turned three, he was still on the picket line.

This month a federal labour board handed Alfaro and other B.C. telecommunications workers a resounding win, deciding that LTS Solutions Ltd. — part of the construction giant Ledcor Group — had effectively tried to deny them representation and the right to union membership over five years of failed bargaining.

The Canada Industrial Relations Board is set to take the extraordinary step of creating and imposing its own collective agreement between the employer — a standalone division of Ledcor — and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 213.

Ledcor, which has about 6,000 employees in the U.S. and Canada and has its Canadian corporate headquarters in Vancouver, did not respond to a request for comment from The Tyee.

For the union, it’s a bittersweet victory that comes after a gruelling three-year strike. The union estimates it spent roughly $4 million throughout the affair, and most of the workers who originally unionized have gone on to other jobs or training.

IBEW 213 assistant business manager Robin Nedila says the ordeal highlights the need for national laws banning the use of replacement workers in federally regulated industries — something the federal labour minister has promised could come as soon as the spring.

“There has to be a situation where this never happens again,” Nedila said.

Alfaro agrees. He and his colleagues picketed through record-setting heat, widespread flooding and the start of a global pandemic.

“I didn’t go to strike for money,” Alfaro said. “This is not for my job anymore.”

The strike

Justin Li and other workers had voted to unionize in 2017 after what Li calls years of worsening pay and conditions at the Ledcor division, which makes money by installing internet, phone and TV services on behalf of telecom companies — especially Telus.

A man in a light green fleece jacket, with glasses and no hair, looks at the camera. It’s outdoors, and sun illuminates the right side of his face.
'My wife asked, "When is this over? When do you see an end to this?”' says Justin Li. Photo by Zak Vescera.

“I just saw so many changes, and a lot of them for the worse. Conditions never seemed to get much better,” Li said. But the next five years became a saga of unsuccessful attempts to reach a deal for better pay and working conditions with the employer.

At times, Nedila said the union went months without meeting with Ledcor reps. In total, they bargained for just 18 days in the first two-and-a-half years after members unionized.

By the fall of 2019, 79 per cent of workers had voted to strike. Then Ledcor fired 31 technicians. The strike officially began on Sept. 30, 2019. Li thought it wouldn’t last more than two months.

Normally, strikes pressure employers to improve their offers to employees by shutting down or limiting business operations. But Ledcor had two advantages.

One was that it claimed it had hired a number of technicians after certification and incorrectly told them they were not in the union. Ledcor told that board as many as 52 per cent of union members were crossing the picket line and reporting for work despite the strike.

Dustin Brecht, a former technician turned IBEW organizer, said Ledcor was also relying increasingly on its own contractors to complete work for Telus.

“I could tell you from someone who worked with the company that they had way more contractors post-certification than they had pre-certification,” Brecht said.

For most B.C. companies, hiring those contractors would be illegal. The province’s labour code prohibits the use of “replacement workers” — sometimes pejoratively called “scabs” — from doing the work of any unionized employee during a strike or lockout. It’s a measure few other provinces have adopted. In Alberta, the NDP government banned replacement workers in 2016, but that was reversed by the United Conservative Party government.

But the telecommunications industry is federally regulated, and national laws contain only limited provisions on the use of replacement workers.

What Li thought would be a two-month action dragged on for years. Labour board documents detail months of what it describes as bargaining in bad faith on the part of Ledcor.

At times, the company did not meet with the union for months on end. At other points, it offered contract provisions that gave the company the unilateral power to change wages and scheduling provisions in the agreement, arguing the alternative would be the business shutting down.

“My wife asked, ‘When is this over? When do you see an end to this?’” Li said.

Pandemic, heat and rain

When he reported for his first shift on the picket line, Alfaro remembers as many as 30 people being there. Then the ranks thinned.

Some people went on to other work, and Ledcor eliminated a whole section of its technicians who had voted to organize. After certification in 2017, there were 238 union members in the bargaining unit; today, Brecht estimates there are between 50 and 60.

Eventually, the union began to run out of money to pay workers on the picket line.

“We reached a financial crisis and we might not have been able to make strike pay for these folks,” said IBEW 213 business manager Jim Lofty.

He said IBEW locals from across Canada chipped in more than $250,000 to get them over the hump.

The union offered workers apprenticeships and other jobs, partially as a way to help them make income, but also to relieve the pressure on its own war chest.

“We didn’t have many funds anymore,” Alfaro said. “Since they were ready to go to work, they were highly skilled, so it made sense [for] the union to put them back to work to save money, instead of pretty much getting paid on the picket line.”

Li began an apprenticeship, but still visited the picket line on his time off. Alfaro spent 20 hours a week on the line, and recently took on extra work during nights. In early 2020, workers held the line as the COVID-19 pandemic began. In 2021, they kept up picketing through a record-setting heat wave.

Alfaro remembers striking workers rigging a solar panel to an electric fan to stay cool. Months later, an atmospheric river brought a deluge of rain and floods to the Lower Mainland, and they set up tarps to keep picketers as dry as possible.

Nedila said the union eventually tried a “last ditch” attempt to get a deal through a direct appeal to federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan.

Under Canadian law, the minister has the power to refer deadlocked negotiations for a first collective agreements to the Canadian Industrial Relations Board, which has the power to impose its own deal if the parties can’t reach one.

On Nov. 10, that board issued a blistering decision, saying Ledcor failed in its obligations to try and reach a deal with the IBEW 213. It said the company’s stipulation around changing wages “sterilizes the union’s ability to have any meaningful impact on the working conditions of the LTS employees,” and that Ledcor’s actions “resulted in the denial of the representational rights granted in the certification and constituted a refusal to recognize the union.”

The board may now take the extraordinary step of imposing a collective agreement on the two parties.

“We never prefer binding arbitration,” Brecht said. “A third party deciding a collective agreement is not what you want out of collective bargaining. In this situation, it is the only way to get a first agreement.”

The union says the strike will continue until it receives instructions from the CIRB on a back-to-work plan.

Push for legal reform

Brecht and other IBEW organizers say the duration of the strike shows the need for a complete federal ban on replacement workers.

Last month, O’Regan announced that legislation was coming, part of a deal the federal Liberals struck with the NDP to maintain their power in Parliament. His spokeswoman, Jane Deeks, said in a statement to The Tyee that the legislation will be introduced before the end of 2023.

But NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh told The Tyee his party has pressured the Liberals to pass the bill more quickly. The party’s labour critic, Alexandre Boulerice, introduced their version of the law last month. Singh suggested a final version could pass by early 2023.

“We’re hopeful that it’s going to happen much sooner than the end of the year,” Singh said Monday.

If that law existed already, Brecht thinks the strike would never have happened — or at least it would have been short.

“Without a doubt, things would have been a lot easier to deal with. When the company has all the cards in their favour, they’re going to use it and exploit for everything they can,” Brecht said.

“[The legislation] would have rendered them useless. They would have had no work.”

Alfaro and Li aren’t sure they’ll return to work at Ledcor; both have moved on to new things. But they’re celebrating the win.

“Even in my wife’s job, people said, ‘Your husband is crazy. You can’t take Ledcor down. They’re too big,’ ” Alfaro said. “Well, they were wrong.”

Lofty has praise for the tenacious workers.

“We wouldn’t be here in this position to get this win without these guys,” Lofty said, “because they could have rolled up the carpet… packed it in long ago. And if they hadn’t stayed on the line and continued that picket, we wouldn’t have been able to continue the fight.”  [Tyee]

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