Port Coquitlam telecom workers win 5-year labour battle; employer ‘makes a mockery’ of bargaining process

Five years after joining a union and three years after commencing a strike, Port Coquitlam telecom employees have won a hard-fought labour victory against their employer.

The federal government’s Canadian Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) unanimously ruled on Nov. 10 that LTS Solutions, a subsidiary of Ledcor, “breached its duty to argue in good faith” with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).

“It is the board’s view that the employer’s approach to bargaining, particularly since the advent of the strike, makes a mockery of the collective bargaining process,” the board stated.

“The employer’s actions have neutralized the union’s ability to participate in a meaningful way in collective bargaining.”

The union’s primary complaint was that LTS had engaged in “surface bargaining” – a term for superficial negotiation with no intention of agreeing to a collective agreement.

Robin Nedila, assistant business manager with IBEW 213, called the decision “monumental,” noting that a successful Section 80 decision – in which the board settles terms between union and employer – had not been won in decades.

“This decision will be referred to for a really long time,” he said. “It took too long to get to this point, if an employer is intent on not concluding a collective agreement, the board needs to be able to deal with it more effectively and more quickly. . . . That’s one of things we are hoping to come out of this.”

The board’s 72-page ruling decided found that LTS had created an impasse by insisting on “unusual terms,” such as being able to unilaterally reduce wages; refusing to negotiate for months after tendering an offer; and refusing to exchange proposals that might have led to a settlement.

What’s left of the local will soon have their collective agreement settled, with terms set by the board.

When the workers certified IBEW 213 in 2017, they were 238 members strong; only 65 remain, though some may return as a back-to-work protocol has been ordered.

LTS provides contract work for Telus, supplying technicians for installing and maintaining fibre optic networks owned by the telecom giant.

In the spring of 2017, IBEW began its organizing drive for field technicians at LTS, and certified the new local by summer. They sought better working conditions, higher wages and job security.

After two years of stalled negotiations, 79 percent of union members supported a strike vote.

The company offered its first and only collective agreement offer in September, 2019, with “unpalatable” terms, according to the union. IBEW 213 reps subsequently told their members the offer should be rejected.

Less than a week later, the company laid off 31 technicians, and the union declared a strike, starting on Sept. 30.

Prior to the board’s Nov. 10 decision, the union had submitted four unfair labour practice complaints to the board, though none related to surface bargaining.

Three were dismissed, though one, relating to LTS falsely informing certain employees they were not included in the bargaining unit, was substantiated.

In December, 2019, the union applied to the Minister of Labour to refer the dispute to CIRB.

When the company learned the union had made an application to the minister, its representatives walked out of a January, 2020 meeting.

The union later modified its position, and tendered another offer in October, 2020, which the company rejected, made no counteroffer and refused further negotiation.

In its own submission to the minister, LTS alleged the union had “essentially engaged in fraud” by making false and misleading statements. They called the union’s referral for a Section 80 decision an “abuse of process.”

The company’s position was it would be unable to operate without maintaining the principals of cost neutrality, operational flexibility and a merit-based culture.

The board noted the company’s shifting excuses for not continue the negotiations.

These ranged from demanding apologies for comments union members made to the press, COVID-19 and pandemic-related economic factors, the union’s ongoing application to the ministry, its refusal to concede positions, lost contracts, to certain employees wishing to revoke the union.

From July, 2020 onward, the board concluded that LTS “hoped that the union will simply go away” after one employee (supported by the company) filed an application to revoke its bargaining status.

“The employer has engaged in conduct that would render the union impotent in the eyes of employees,” the board said. “This is particularly the case where the employer refused to meet to bargain with the union, holding up a myriad of excuses.

“The board has determined that this is one of the rare instances in which it is advisable for it to settle the terms of the first (collective agreement).”

Both parties are slated to meet with an industrial relations officer, who will report back to the board within 30 days. The board will then hold a meeting with all parties to settle the terms.

The federal government has said it will introduce new anti-scab legislation by the end of 2023, and is currently conducting consultations to gather input on the issue.

The CIRB decision may have far reaching implications for how companies operating under federal law can behave during collective bargaining.

Ledcor’s ability to bring in replacement workers prolonged the strike, said Dustin Brecht, lead organizer with IBEW 213.

He said that many of those who crossed the picket line were hired after the union certified, and would be deemed scab labour under B.C. labour laws.

“A labour dispute is meant to put economic pressure on one side side or the other,” Brecht said. “The use of replacement workers, contractors included, allowed Ledcor to operate pretty close to normal during the strike.”

Local NDP MP, Bonita Zarrillo, released a joint statement with Hamilton MP Matthew Green in support of the union, highlighting the need for new legislation.

Today, my caucus colleague @BonitaZarrillo and I have issued the following statement in solidarity with @IBEW213 :We would like to extend our congratulations and solidarity to IBEW 213 on their successful ruling at the Canadian Industrial Relations Board.#CanLab #Cdnpoli pic.twitter.com/Ve5DnCGOCv— Matthew Green ??✊? (@MatthewGreenNDP)

“The fact that this process has gone on for more than five years, with workers having spent three of them on the picket line, clearly shows the need for the federal government to promptly table strong anti-scab legislation,” the letter states.

The Dispatch has reached out to Ledcor for comment on the decision but did not receive a response by press time.

Patrick Penner, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Tri-Cities Dispatch