Telecommunications workers in B.C. who've been on strike for three years have renewed hope they will be able to realize a first-ever collective agreement with their employer following a federal ruling that found it breached its duty to bargain in good faith.
The ruling from the Canadian Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) comes five years after 238 workers employed by LTS Solutions Ltd., part of Ledcor Group, certified as a local under the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW 213), and sought a first collective agreement with the company to improve working conditions, job security and wages.
The labour case highlights the lengths some workers are willing to go to improve their working conditions and could influence changes to federal laws around how companies can use replacement workers.
"This is my fourth winter on a picket line but I still have the energy to go through because we know that we are fighting a good fight," said one of the workers, Mikhail Alfero. He began working for LTS in 2009.
The majority of the workers certified with IBEW 213 worked as technicians installing and repairing telecommunications equipment at residences or businesses as contractors for Telus.
The last offer from LTS was made in 2019, but included the ability for it to lower wages.
Robin Nedila, a rep with IBEW 213, said the offer was seen as "unpalatable" by the union. The offer was part of an acrimonious descent into a series of disputes between the two sides.
In September 2019, shortly after the offer was tendered, LTS terminated 31 workers. The union responded by going on strike.
Justin Li, who also began working for LTS in 2009, had no idea the action would extend for years.
"I didn't think I'd be picketing for three years," he said. "I figured maybe three months, even three weeks."
Workers like Li and Alfero continue to picket, but have had to move onto other jobs or train for new careers to support their families despite strike pay and other support from the union.
At the time of certification, the bargaining unit consisted of 238 employees. Five years later, there are only 65 employees left.
But a collective agreement may still be within reach and workers in the original bargaining unit could get their jobs back based on this week's CIRB ruling.
"This decision is monumental," said Dustin Brecht, who organized the certification drive with IBEW 213 in 2017. "We think it's historical, but it's just the beginning."
'This sends a signal': law professor
In December 2019, three months into the strike, the union applied to the CIRB to have it settle the terms and conditions of its first collective bargaining agreement, arguing that LTS had committed unfair labour practices, mainly in not committing to bargaining in good faith.
Three years later, this November, the 72-page ruling agreed with the union and said it would oversee the next steps in returning to bargaining and ultimately a collective agreement, "because, in this case, there was a failure of the collective bargaining process as a result of the employer's conduct.
"The employer acts as if it can and should evade any consequences of a certification of this union because it believes that its business can only continue to exist without any operational constraints," reads the ruling.
Supriya Routh, an associate professor at UBC's Allard School of Law who studies labour and employment law, said the ruling upholds workers' rights.
"This sends a signal to the employers who are not engaging in good faith bargaining that non-engagement in good faith bargaining is unacceptable to the board."
Ledcor and the lawyer representing LTS at the board did not respond to CBC News's requests for comment.
In the CIRB ruling, LTS defended its actions, saying it needed to protect "principles of cost neutrality, operational flexibility and the need to preserve a merit-based culture."
MPs say use of replacement workers prolongs dispute
One of the reasons the union believes the impasse stretched such a long time and required federal intervention is because of LTS's ability to employ other workers in place of those on strike.
Ledcor is regulated under the Canadian Labour Code, and unlike B.C.'s Labour Relations Code, it does not have strict rules around the prohibition of replacement workers.
Ottawa has promised to introduce legislation by the end of 2023 to prohibit the use of replacement workers when a union employer in a federally regulated industry has locked out employees, or when those employees go on strike.
NDP MPs, including Bonita Zarrillo, who represents Port Moody where IBEW 213 has been actively on strike, said in a letter that the case should help shape that legislation.
"This is an important ruling to rebalance the bargaining process," said the letter from her and fellow MP Matthew Green.
"The use of replacement workers prolongs labour disputes and are a blatant attack on workers' rights."