Unifor has filed an unfair labour practices complaint against Bell Canada, claiming the telecom giant was trying to pressure clerical workers to cross the picket line of an impending potential strike.
The union, which represents around 315,000 private-sector workers across Canada including Toronto Star employees, filed its complaint with the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) on July 26, alleging that Bell improperly pressured its workers over email to work during strike action.
On Wednesday Unifor reached a tentative agreement with Bell on behalf of its 4,200 clerical workers in Ontario and Quebec. The workers had voted in favour of a strike on June 21, and their strike deadline was Aug. 19. Details of the agreement will not be released until workers vote to ratify it in the coming weeks.
Unifor confirmed Wednesday evening that the CIRB complaint will proceed, and would not comment further on the complaint.
Earlier, NDP labour critic Matthew Green called Bell’s tactics “unethical,” especially as a large and profitable company.
“This is part of a growing trend,” he said, where big corporations pit workers against each other to undermine the integrity of collective agreements and bargaining.
In a press release July 27, Unifor said Bell sent out two emails to all clerical staff within a week about the upcoming strike deadline.
The union described these emails in an open letter to federal labour minister Alexandre Boulerice.
According to Unifor, on July 21, Bell senior vice-president of labour relations Reno Vaillancourt emailed unionized Bell clerical employees asking that they declare their intent to continue working during a potential strike or lockout.
“This email is nothing less than an open invitation for unionized Bell clerical workers to act as scabs during a potential strike, an invitation we see as an offensive and unacceptable form of union busting,” the union wrote in the open letter.
In a followup memo cited by Unifor, Vaillancourt wrote: “If you decide to work during a strike, you will work exclusively from home and your pay and conditions will remain the same, with the exception that union dues would not be deducted.”
This implies that Bell workers would make more money if they choose to perform scab labour, Unifor claimed in the open letter.
Green said Bell appeared to be trying to use union dues as a “wedge” between workers.
A Bell spokesperson told the Star the company would not comment on ongoing negotiations; Bell could not be reached for comment after the deal was announced.
Vaillancourt had also asked employees to confirm their intent by Aug. 2, according to Unifor. The union wrote that keeping “a list of who intends to exercise their legally protected right to strike, and who intends to scab seems like an implicit threat.”
Brock University labour studies professor Larry Savage said using replacement workers in federally regulated industries is only illegal if it’s designed to undermine workers’ representational capacity — which offers employers a large loophole, because they can use scabs and argue it’s to keep their business running.
That argument makes it difficult to prove instances of union-busting, Savage said.
The Liberal/NDP “supply-and-confidence agreement” includes a promise to introduce federal anti-scab legislation by the end of 2023 that would render the use of replacement workers during a lockout or strike illegal.
Green said the legislation is important because using scab labour defeats the purpose of strikes, which are often the only tool workers have to defend themselves.
“The only power workers have is the collective power to withdraw their labour,” he said.
Savage agrees with Unifor’s characterization of the emails sent by Bell to the clerical workers.
“The communication from management to the workforce, in my view, is designed to intimidate union members into taking sides in advance of a labour dispute,” he said.
“I think it’s a very aggressive move. There’s no question about it. It looks like a brazen attempt by management to divide and conquer.”
According to the union, Bell employees were seeking “a fair pay increase, continued work-from-home conditions, and an enforceable floor of employment in the bargaining unit.”
Inflation is affecting labour disputes across the country, said Savage, resulting in higher strike activity so far this year than in at least a decade. Some unions are also winning big pay bumps for workers because of inflation, he noted, and he expects more labour disputes in the fall.
Union representatives and workers said in a video posted ahead of the strike vote that their job has become more stressful and their workloads heavier in recent years as their workforce has shrunk.
“It’s no surprise that Bell adopted these hostile tactics in the midst of a cooling-off period after decades of aggressive job erosion and outsourcing,” Daniel Cloutier, Unifor Quebec director, said in the July 27 press release, which adds that the union has criticized Bell for shrinking the bargaining unit through automation and contracting out labour.
“These tactics show how worried Bell management is that workers are finally ready to say enough is enough.”
In another press release Wednesday announcing the deal, Unifor’s secretary-treasurer Lana Payne said many of the issues the clerical workers were united on are reflected in the tentative agreement.
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