Technicians’ union strikes a nerve with Canada’s telcos

For weeks, Bell Canada has been bracing for a possible technician strike and the resultant loss of business, analysts say.

Over the next several weeks, the 7,000 Bell technicians in question will vote on whether to reject the

telecom giant’s latest contract offer. The union representing the technicians, the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, has said the votes will be counted on August 16th.

In the meantime, some managers at Bell Canada have likely been boning up on technician duties such as installs and repairs in the event that they are asked to replace striking staff, said Mark Quigley, a telecom analyst with The Yankee Group in Canada.

“”People have been given some understanding of their assignments (in the event of a strike),”” he said. “”The company has likely gone to great lengths to ensure there are as (few) disruptions as possible.””

But there is only so much the company can prepare for, added Quigley. Predictably, it will take more time for managers – who spend more time at a desk than technical staff – to do the same job, he said.

For business customers, a strike will mean cost-savings because the technicians who usually do such work will not be on the payroll.

“”Granted, that’s really not the way you want to incur cost-savings,”” said Quigley.

For Bell, the amount of lost business incurred by a strike would depend on the length of time technicians are off the job, said Brian Sharwood, a telecom analyst with the SeaBoard Group.

“”I think Telus, for example, has lost business over (customer) fears of an (imminent) strike. Telus always lives in fear of the unions walking out.””

This fear remains real for telcos, despite the increasing role that technology plays in their daily operations, analysts agree. In fact, as the technology evolves, telcos are increasingly bound to their unions, they say.

“”Without the participation of those unions, it becomes a different world for a company like Bell,”” said Quigley. “”They’re integral to a company’s success going forward. Making sure service level agreements are met is a very important part of Bell Canada’s business. The roll that the unionized employees play in the success of Bell certainly can’t be underestimated.””

One key to a telco’s success is the ability to adapt to evolving technology and to ensure staff can quickly be transferred to other divisions of the company as these changes take place, said Sharwood.

This means that a telco may not wish to renew a five-year contract with an asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) engineer, for example, because there is an increasing emphasis on multiprotocol label switching (MPLS), explains Sharwood. “”So the telco may wish to re-train the ATM engineer and transfer him into MPLS or something else to give the company the leeway it needs.””

“”(Therefore) telcos have to plan their operations fairly heavily around unions.””

Nonetheless, a union’s leverage is only as good as the amount of support it receives from its members, said Michael Armstrong, associate professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business.

Armstrong points out that Bell’s previous offer, released last month, was rejected by 62 per cent of the 5,600 or so technicians who voted. While the result set the stage for a strike, it doesn’t give the union the solidarity it might find in a vote that garners 80- to 90-per-cent support.

“”At 62 per cent, they can legally call a strike, but both sides know there’s going to be a certain number of people who vote ‘yes’ but won’t actually support it,”” said Armstrong. “”Or maybe they’ll support it for a day or two and then go back to work because they have to feed the kids or pay the mortgage.””

Such a weak strike vote is not as credible, and won’t force management into offering up as much, he added.

Sharwood predicted the Bell technicians are not going to walk off the job.

“”The vote result is very close. This signals division within the union. The history of (successful strike) votes is usually 95 per cent in favour. Obviously, they’re not at that point, so Bell has come pretty close to solving this.””


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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