History

A brief history of USW Local 1944

Roots

The telephone industry in Western Canada began in the late 1800s. There were many years of rapid growth, leading to a burgeoning industry that needed more and more skilled workers. In the early 1900s, militancy grew and telephone workers began to organize. The members fought hard and often and won many benefits. The telephone workers in BC became the highest-paid telephone workers on the continent. In the 1920s, workers became complacent and had few grievances. In the late twenties, telephone workers in BC gave up their union, not realizing their relatively good position was as a result of the battles they won as a union. It would be a long time before telephone workers in BC would become organized again.

A New Union Rises from the Ashes

Originally chartered as the Federation of Telephone Workers (FTW) in 1944, the Union was the exclusive bargaining agent for the workers at the BC Telephone Company. That remained so until deregulation of the telephone industry began in 1992, opening the door to certifications with other employers.

Although steady gains were being made, for most of our history since 1944, there were few major labour disputes between the Union and the employer. The exception was a dozen years between 1969 through 1981. During those years, labour relations with BC Tel were rocky, to put it mildly. Major issues such as wages and working conditions during a time of high inflation, contracting out, jurisdiction, layoffs, pensions and, more recently, pay equity, have caused tensions between the company and the Union which resulted in a number of work stoppages.

Between 1944 and 1969, numerous contracts were negotiated without a strike or lockout. The late 1960s saw the coincidence of rising labour militancy, generally and within the FTW, and a rising cost of living. In the summer of 1969, union members went out on strike largely over monetary issues, seeking to protect their standard of living through fair wage increases. The strike lasted six weeks and ended with a 20 per cent wage increase over two years.

In 1973, a strike took place in the Okanagan at OK Tel, a subsidiary of BC Tel, over the issues of pensions and wage parity with BC Tel counterparts. The settlement and a later merger between the OK Tel and BC Tel units resulted in the negotiation of a very sound pension plan for all members, a defined-benefit plan jointly trusteed and jointly funded, with the company contributing the lion's share of contributions to the plan.

The issue of contracting out members' work, along with other concerns such as wages, led to a strike-lockout in 1977. The result was a mediated settlement which included one of the strongest contracting out clauses among telephone companies in North America. The bar to contracting out work, and the clause in the collective agreement which forbids the company from laying off for reasons of technological change, had effectively prevented the company from successfully implementing any massive layoffs. The Union did not suffer from the downsizing that had afflicted many Telecom unions in North America during the 1990s, with the company pretty much restricted to voluntary buyouts to reduce the size of the workforce.

The last major labour dispute during those tumultuous times occurred in 1980-81, which involved rotating strikes followed by a complete shutdown with the aid of an occupation of BC Tel buildings in Vancouver and Nanaimo by union members. Following that lengthy strike, the telephone company began to take steps to improve the labour climate. Up until 2005, the TWU had successfully negotiated successive collective agreements including substantial wage increases without losing any time to strikes or lockouts.

Campaigns to Save Jobs

Since 1981, the TWU has engaged in campaigns on a number of fronts. The Union fought hard against the deregulation of the telephone industry and was successful until 1992. The Union also resisted a major layoff attempt in the early 1980s, going to court to force the company to abide by the contract provision which prevented layoffs purely for reasons of technological change. The Union also resisted company efforts to centralize operations, with mixed success. While some smaller centres saw offices closed, the union's campaign to enlist the support of the local community and municipal leaders limited the damage considerably, and fewer members than originally expected were forced to choose between leaving their communities and quitting their jobs.

Beginning in the 1980s and into the 1990s, the Union made a major push for pay equity for female members. Through collective bargaining in three rounds of negotiations, the Union narrowed the wage gap considerably, and in 1994, followed that up with a pay equity complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission. That complaint was settled as a result of the signing of the 2005-2010 collective agreement.

Three-Headed Monster

While this was going on, the Union's structure underwent a major change. For the first three decades after 1944, the FTW was known affectionately as the "three-headed monster", as it represented Clerical, Plant and Operator Services separately, with separate Executives and divided memberships. By the 1970s, it was becoming apparent that such a division and relatively small membership was not in the best interests of the members. This resulted in a number of proposals being put forward. One suggestion was a merger with the US based CWA, another proposal was a merger with the Bell Canada Union, then known as the CWC. In fact, the FTW and CWC did form a loose alliance in 1972 with joint membership in the CFCW, but this was a voluntary association, and no further steps towards a merger resulted.

Meanwhile, the union leadership was changing, with Bill Clark replacing Bert Johns as General Secretary of the Plant Division in 1970. In the mid-1970s, serious efforts got underway to merge the three divisions into one union, which resulted in the eventual formation of the Telecommunications Workers Union or TWU. The One Union Concept gained gradual acceptance, and in June 1977, the Telecommunications Workers Union held its first convention.

Changes

The president of the newly-formed TWU was Bob Donnelley. He was replaced during the 1980 dispute by Bill Clark. Clark retired in 1987, and in his place, Business Agent Larry Armstrong took over as president. When Armstrong retired in 1992, then Vice President Rod Hiebert took over as president until his retirement in 2005 at which time Vice President Bruce Bell took over the presidency. George Doubt was elected as president at the March 2007 Convention until Lee Riggs was elected as president. In 2018, Isabelle Miller was then elected president and became the first racialized woman to hold this office.

Over the years, other gradual changes in the Union's structure and operation led to the increasing roles played by female and visible minority members. During the first decade as the TWU, the Table Officers (president, vice president and secretary-treasurer) were all male. However, following Secretary-Treasurer Don Bremner's retirement in 1988, the Union elected its first female table officer, Doreen McMillan. Since then, Local 1944 has had a number of women fill the roles of vice president and secretary-treasurer. Local 1944 is a very progressive local union. Today, the acting president and nearly half of the 12-member Executive Board are women. As well, in 2006, three racialized people were elected to the Executive Board for the first time in our history.

Challenges

The TWU was historically a provincial union, representing members only in British Columbia. That changed when Alberta-based Telus and BC-based BC Tel merged in 1999. At that time there were five unions representing workers in the newly formed company. In 2000, there was a vote to determine which union would represent all workers in the bargaining unit. The TWU was the successful union.

Telus became a national company in 2000 when it purchased Clearnet, a national cellular provider and Quebec Tel, the second biggest telecom company in Quebec.

Contract talks between the TWU and Telus began in late 2000. Five years of protracted, and often tumultuous, contract negotiations ended with a bitter four-month labour dispute ending in November 2005.

In February 2010, a Strategic alliance was formed with the United Steelworkers (USW). Through this alliance, the TWU realized that there are limitations to a strategic alliance and to ensure greater strength for the membership at the bargaining table the TWU would most benefit from merging our union with another. As a result of this decision, a process of screening interested unions to merge with was undertaken and the United Steelworkers were eventually selected as the best candidate.

In 2015, the TWU then became USW Local 1944, in commemoration of the year the TWU was founded.

Merger

USW Local 1944 has completed its transition period as of January 1, 2020. With the USW helping to fund and facilitate, Local 1944 has been provided with an unprecedented amount of training and educational opportunities for our members; providing them with the necessary tools to police the collective agreements, protect their rights and organize for upcoming rounds of bargaining. Local 1944 also now has access to USW’s strategic, legal, and research departments as well as the Strike and Defense Fund. This places the Local in a much better position going forward.

In addition, with the United Steelworkers committing to an initial $1 million to expand Local 1944’s organizing efforts, the Local is searching for new organizing opportunities in an effort to diversify its union and expand its membership while fighting to better the lives of workers in the telecommunications industry as a whole.