Telecom conference teaches rights at work and builds activism

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A group of people standing in front of a red Unifor stage with chairs and tables in the foreground.

A jam-packed agenda greeted delegates to Unifor’s 2023 Telecommunications Conference, with opportunities to hear from union specialists and space to reflect on bargaining victories and opportunities shared across the highly-integrated sector.

Telecommunications Council President and National Executive Board Representative Jeff Brohman set the tone early on by declaring a mission, “We will be using this space to discuss the imminent threat to our membership. We need action, both directly and politically.”

“While we may be divided by provinces or companies, as federally regulated industry, we need to work together. It’s important that we talk about how we can advance our goals collectively,” he continued.

Telecommunications Director Roch Leblanc set out to deliver a conference that armed local union leadership with the knowledge and skills to better defend workers’ rights. On the agenda: a deep dive into telecom and BCE business performance, a pay equity primer, review of paid sick day changes in the federal labour code, and reports on both the union’s racial justice advocate and the anti-scab campaign.

In local reports, bargaining committee members shared stories of combatting the onslaught of contracting out through membership mobilization and coordination of bargaining across units.

Sandy Brideau, President of Local 506 in New Brunswick focused on the differences in Atlantic Communications Locals’ approach to round of negotiations that concluded in 2022. Locals coordinated with groups in Ontario and Quebec, made sure that inside and outside workers were both represented, and that the bargaining team reflects the diversity of the membership.

Delegates heard from Unifor’s elected leadership, including National President Lana Payne and National Secretary Treasurer Len Poirier.

Poirier invited delegates to participate in the ongoing Bargaining Workers’ Power strategy sessions, happening across the country over the next several weeks, and celebrated the successes of recent rounds of telecom negotiations, “Unifor’s bargaining committees were able to secure agreements that were consistent with the needs of members. And for the first time in their history, Bell Clerical workers delivered a strike mandate.”

Telco executive committee standing in front of a red Unifor banner

Lana Payne focused on telecommunications company’s rising profits, and the need to continue to raise working standards, “The telecommunications sector in Canada occupies a special and privileged place. Safeguarded from competition south of the border or elsewhere. We know there is more they should deliver for that privilege.”

“We need to build the things we need right here in Canada. The telecommunications network of the future.”

The conference included planning time for members to provide feedback on a new national strategy to push back against contracting out in the sector. To inform the planning, Sasktel members including Dave Kuntz, Local 1-S President, shared the locals’ strategies for combatting a wave of contracting out at the crown corporation.

“Sasktel is a Crown Corporation, owned by the people of Saskatchewan,” Dave Kuntz, Local 1-S President opened an introduction into the Local’s contracting out campaign.

Kuntz asked the room to raise their hand if their workplace had been targeted by contracting out. Every delegate raised their hand at once, united in this experience of precarity and job erosion.

Locals in Saskatchewan are engaging in a multi-pronged campaign to combat contracting out, by engaging with members and the public directly. This builds off years of organizing through provincial elections, bargaining campaigns, and multiple attacks form government that attempted to sell-off crown corporations.

Delegates also gained valuable knowledge and skills to defend members and advocate for their rights at work.

Unifor’s Senior Director of Constitution and Legal Matters, Anthony Dale, presented on recent changes to the Canada Labour Code that add paid medial leave for workers in federally regulated sectors like telecommunications.

National Staff Representatives Hugo Desgagné and Theresa Farao shared information on workplace health and safety and pay equity.

Sasktel group standing wearing yellow shirts with fists in the air.