There is an apocryphal story that Mahatma Gandhi was once asked what he thought about Western Civilization. He is said to have answered that it would be a good idea. That is pretty much my view of the labour movement today: despite decades of being on the receiving end of ferocious attacks from corporations and governments, organized labour is not functioning like a movement at all.
The modern assault on organized labour in
Confident that their job action would cause the national airline system to grind to a halt, nearly 90% of PATCO's 13,000 controllers defied the back-to-work order. Reagan gave union members 48 hours to return, knowing that his Transportation Secretary had secretly trained replacements, installed new air traffic control systems, and made plans to ensure that airline service would be maintained at 80% of normal levels. When the 48 hour period expired, Reagan fired all 11,345 striking air traffic controllers who had ignored his order and permanently banned them from employment in the federal service. In an ominous foreshadowing of a pattern that would recur again and again in the ensuing twenty-five years, organized labour's response to this dramatic assault was negligible.
Organized labour in the telecommunications sector has been the target of a similar but more protracted assault since the mid-1980s, when the
In the twenty years since the onset of neo-liberal globalization, hundreds of thousands of unionized communications jobs have been lost, wages and working conditions in the industry have deteriorated, and union density has declined as telecommunications companies established and purchased major non-union subsidiaries. Organizational upheaval in the sector has been reinforced by the deployment of unprecedented waves of new technology, the digitization of the telephone network, and the advent of e-mail and the internet. In addition, the introduction of the cellular telephone transformed the industry from one dominated by wireline services to one in which mobile service predominates. As if all this were not enough, communications companies determined to exercise unfettered control over their employees' working lives have gone all out to prevent cellular, the fastest growing and most profitable part of the industry, from being unionized.
Despite the staggering challenges that communications unions have faced over the last 25 years, they have done little or nothing to mount a coherent response capable of pushing back the corporate onslaught. Instead of responding as part of a movement, they have chosen to function as individual, isolated organizations. I have long been frustrated by the fact that neither the unions whose members labour in this industry nor progressive policy experts like those who are gathered at this conference have made a serious effort to come to grips with the destructive, anti-social forces that are transforming this all-important sector.
Although differing in particular details, the plight of
Brophy explains that the 2004 confrontation between the CEP and the Aliant company in
Aliant's goal was to gain the same kind of control over its workforce that management in the non-union call centre industry enjoys. To that end, Aliant aimed to cripple the union and destroy its ability to defend its members. The company's effort was facilitated by the effects of years of neo-liberal deregulation, which hit Canadian telecommunications starting in the late 1980s. It was at that time that the CRTC, the federal regulatory body responsible for overseeing the country's telecommunications industry, opted to introduce competition in the long distance end of the Canadian business. That decision was followed by others which cumulatively deregulated the industry. In the process, the Commission has done away with the service requirements that were once imposed on
But communications corporations' assault did not end with the deregulation of the industry. Still to come was their attempt to regain complete control in the workplace. Achievement of this goal would require showdowns with the incumbent unions.
Across the country, relations between management and labour had been deteriorating for years. The issues in contention in
So by the time the Aliant dispute broke out in 2004, unions and companies across the country knew what was at stake. At the TWU, all eyes were riveted on what was happening in Atlantic Canada; the union anticipated that developments out East would be a harbinger of what was to come out West when push came to shove with Telus.
When push came to shove at Aliant and the dispute broke out, the CEP worked to slow down maintenance, repair, and support functions. The idea was to jeopardize the company's ability to attract new customers and divert them to Aliant's competitors. (A very similar approach was employed a year later by the TWU against Telus.) For its part, Aliant used its managerial workforce to do the work of its unionized employees, while large numbers of private security guards monitored and intimidated the striking workers – a tactic that would also feature prominently in the confrontation between Telus and the TWU.
When the Aliant dispute was over and they looked over the prospective settlement, union members were angered by the fact that it could take some of them up to 30 months to reach wage parity with Aliant employees doing the same work in other provinces. To make matters worse, although the contract stipulated that no union jobs could be contracted out, it allowed the company to contract out work as long as no employee was laid off. One member commented that
The contracting-out language that we enjoyed for years in Newfoundland has been completely left out of the collective agreement and all we have now is basically a no-layoff clause that says as long as there's no one on layoff, the company can contract out any amount of work that they feel like.
While unionized workers at Aliant are protected against layoffs, or "workforce reductions" in language of the new collective agreement, management can still shift them around to other positions as long as these are unionized. But once unionized workers leave or retire, management does not have to fill their positions with other unionized workers. Clearly Aliant had achieved its goals.
When the confrontation with Telus broke out in 2005, the TWU was totally unprepared. For several years it had spent a tremendous amount of time, effort and resources battling Telus in the courts and at the Canada Labour Relations Board. Focusing its efforts overwhelmingly in the legal arena, it had neglected to create a serious plan of action in the event that matters came to a head. In stark contrast, Telus had put together a comprehensive strategy which included deploying thousands of scabs imported from central and eastern Canada and the United States; using thousands of managers to do TWU members' work; employing huge numbers of Pinkerton-style "security" guards to harass and intimidate striking union members; and using state-of-the-art electronic communications to ship TWU service representatives' work to call centers in the Philippines and India.
Compounding the unions problems was the fact that the courts in B.C. put unprecedented restrictions on its picketing. Instead of trying to resist these restrictions, however, the union expended a tremendous amount of energy administering the draconian terms of the court's injunctions. As a result, picketing by TWU members, which in earlier disputes had severely disrupted the company's operations, became a strictly symbolic act.
Not surprisingly, the constrained efforts of the TWU and those of the wider labour movement did little to slow the Telus juggernaut. The company's elaborate, well-funded corporate strategy ended up overwhelming the union's ad hoc resistance. Two months into the dispute, Telus operations were largely back to normal and its third-quarter 2005 financial results were the best of any Canadian phone company. In the end, the union was forced to capitulate to forestall its very destruction. Holding all the cards, Telus succeeded in stripping the TWU contract of protections that had taken decades of struggle to achieve.
The unfortunate fact is that under the circumstances, a more positive outcome was highly unlikely because the TWU and other unions in the sector had failed to engage in the kind of serious strategic preparation that would be necessary to win in a confrontation with a well-financed employer holding an array of powerful cards. If things are to be different in the future, unions must do more than merge the survivors of such debacles into conglomerate unions. These new, larger, merged organizations are not qualitatively different from the organizations that join them. Unfortunately, they appear to be characterized by substantially the same structure and lack of strategic capacity as the unions that have merged!
Calling for an alternate approach means getting serious about fighting back. This is not as unreasonable as it might appear in the context an era characterized by an unending string of defeats. Our first task is to overcome the prevailing sense of fatalism that prevails in the ranks of organized labour today.
Fortunately, the TWU's history provides us with an example of the kind of approach that can succeed where playing by the stacked rules of the game cannot, one based on militancy and old fashioned solidarity In 1981, when the employer locked the union out, TWU – fully backed by the rest of British Columbia's labour movement – responded by occupying phone exchanges across the province. When the courts ordered the union to evacuate the employer's premises, the British Columbia Federation of Labour stepped in to organize a series of regional general strikes in solidarity with the TWU. The combination of the resulting pressure from the ranks of the province's Employers' Council and the fact that the union enjoyed tremendous public support forced BC Tel to back away from its union-busting strategy. By stark contrast, in 2005 neither the TWU nor the wider labour movement did anything to generate a plan of action capable of defeating Telus's plans.
It goes without saying that we can't simply replicate the approach TWU used in 1981. But we can draw inspiration from the spirit of resistance that motivated the union and the wider labour movement under those perilous circumstances. The bottom line is that if we are to escape the clutches of neoliberal globalization, organized labour must renounce the passivity that has plagued it for the past 20 years and undertake a collective, solidaristic effort to reinvent itself.
Sid Shniad is the Research Director at the Telecommunications Workers Union, headquartered in