A Brief History of the TWU

The Telecommunications Workers Union (TWU) commemorated its 50th anniversary in 1999. Originally chartered as the Federation of Telephone Workers (FTW), the new name TWU was adopted in the late 1970's.

Historically, since 1949, the Union was exclusively the bargaining agent for the workers at the B.C. Telephone Company, or as it is now known, TELUS. That has changed somewhat in recent years since the deregulation of the telephone industry in 1992.

The TWU has long been affiliated to the B.C. Federation of Labour and the Canadian Labour Congress, as well as the Communications International (formerly P1TI).

For the first 20 years since 1949, and for most of the past 20 years, there were few major labour disputes between the Union and BC TEL. However, for about a dozen years in between, from 1969 through 1981, 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 union which resulted in a number of work stoppages.

Between 1949 and 1969, numerous contracts were negotiated without strike or lockout. The late 1960's saw the coincidence of rising labour militancy, generally and within the FTW, and rising cost of living. In the summer of1969, 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.

The year 1973 saw a strike at OK TEL, a subsidiary of BC TEL, over the issues of pensions and wage parity with BC TEL. The settlement which resulted, and a later merger with 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 to the plan.

The issue of contracting out members´ work, along with other concerns such as wages, led to a strike-lockout at BC TEL in 1977. The result was a mediated settlement which included one of the strongest contracting out clauses among telephone companies in North America. It includes a clause which specifically and severely limits the amount and type of work that the company can contract out, and established a joint Contracting Out and Technological Change committee with an independent chairperson with power to impose settlements where negotiations fail. 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, have effectively prevented the company from successfully implementing any massive layoffs, and the Union has not suffered from the downsizing that has afflicted many Telecom unions in North America, with the company pretty much restricted to voluntary buy outs to reduce the size of the workforce.

The last major labour dispute occurred in 1980-81, which involved rotating strikes followed by a complete shutdown, and in the aid an occupation of BC TEL buildings in Vancouver and Nanaimo by elements within the union. Following that lengthy strike, the telephone company began to take steps to improve the labour climate, steps which included pensioning off some of the management "dinosaurs" in Industrial Relations. Since then, the TWU has successfully negotiated six collective agreements including substantial wage increases without losing any time to strikes or lockouts.

Since 1981, the TWU has engaged in campaigns on a number of fronts. The Union fought hard against 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 prevents layoffs purely for reasons of tech 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 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. Then, beginning in the late 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, the Union followed that up with a pay equity complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission. That complaint is still pending.

While this was ongoing the structure underwent a major change. For nearly the first 30 years after 1949, the FTW was known affectionately as the "three-headed monster", as it represented the three divisions (Clerical, Plant and Operator Service) separately, with separate executives and divided memberships. By the 1970's, it was becoming apparent that such 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 U.S. 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 toward 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-1970's, 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 TWU held its first convention.

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 his place as TWU President was taken by Business Agent Larry Armstrong. When Armstrong retired in 1992, then Vice-President Rod Hiebert took over as President. Hiebert had been elected to the post in June of 1991 and headed the Union's Bargaining Committee from that time. He continues to serve as President.

One other gradual change in the union's structure and operation is the increasing role played by the female members. During the first decade as the TWU, the three table officers were all male. But with the retirement from the Union of Secretary-Treasurer Don Bremner in 1988, the union elected its first female table officer, Doreen McMillan.

The position of Secretary-Treasurer has been filled by a woman many times, with McMillan succeeded by Cathy Henderson, Henderson by Carol Nagy, and Nagy by Secretary-Treasurer, Kathy Pearn, who retired in April 2002. Today, roughly half the executive positions are filled by female members.

Myron Johnson