Unions contribute $2 million to striking Aliant workers

Striking workers in Atlantic Canada have received $2 million from fellow unions to boost a three-month labour struggle against telecom company Aliant that shows no signs of ending.

Forty-three hundred members of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada and Atlantic Communication

and Technical Workers Union walked off the job April 23 over issues that include pension, health care, work hours and contracting out work.

“”Mostly what it was was a…show of solidarity from the other unions and the big, big telecommunications unions in Canada,”” said Dean MacDonald, chief negotiator for the AC&TWU in Dartmouth, N.S.

He said the Telecommunications Workers Union donated $1 million and the CEP, which had already given $1.2 million, promised $1 million in two weeks. They’ll give “”whatever we need,”” he said.

These funds will help to cover workers’ medical benefits of $300,000 a month that Aliant has chosen to forego and $1.8 million a month in strike pay.

The most contentious issue that has left the parties deadlocked is contracting out services, MacDonald said. “”They wanted unrestricted use, and we wanted total prohibition. So somewhere in the middle we’ll meet, I’m sure.””

MacDonald said CEP and AC&TWU wants to adopt a uniform pension strategy for all provinces that will see a more favourable formula to calculate benefits and allow members to contribute. Under a new plan, he said, workers would like at least 50 per cent of their wages in a pension plan.

As it stands, Aliant multiplies the average of a pensioner’s best five years’ salary by 1.5, giving former employees 45 per cent of their wages after working about 30 years, he explained. “”There’s not many left in Canada that low.””

With health care, Aliant wants to move from a traditional plan to a flex plan that “”downloads the cost to the employees. You just end up paying a whole lot more for health care.””

As well, Aliant strikers outside Nova Scotia want a share of the “”compressed work week”” enjoyed by their brethren in that province that gives them an unpaid day off over two weeks, MacDonald said.

Despite the cash influx for disgruntled telecom staff, Aliant public affairs manager Brenda Reid in St. John’s said it’s difficult to speculate how long the battle will drag on. She said the unions, federally appointed mediators and Aliant, which will not talk publicly about the issues or the “”merits of our contract offer,”” conducted fruitless exploratory talks two weeks ago to establish a framework to return to the bargaining table.

To struggle through the crisis, 1,800 non-unionized employees in managerial or supervisory roles have been working in customer service — the firm’s No. 1 priority, she said. This shifting of duties, however, has not hurt the business, she added. “”So in some cases we are continuing to do some marketing and sales, for instance…on a smaller case.””

In the meantime, St. John’s-based RCMP media officer, Sergeant Paul Collins, said police are still investigating vandalized portions of Aliant’s network that in June left up to 250,000 customers in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador without access to long-distance, cellular, Internet and data services.

AC&TWU chief negotiator MacDonald is confident that, despite media reports hinting at connections between the crime and labour dispute, none of the strikers was responsible. In fact, the 30-year phone-company veteran has seen vandalism occur “”every day of the week.

“”On April 23, they didn’t open the doors to San Quentin and let all the criminals out. We’re good, law-abiding people.””

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