The law in Canada couldn't be any clearer: Workers have the right to form unions, and companies must negotiate with them when they do.
But the nearly 240 telecom workers who voted to unionize with Vancouver, B.C., Local 213 found out exactly how far it can be between the promise of the law and what it delivers.
About 1,900 days passed between the vote in 2017 and a precedent-setting decision by the Canadian Industrial Relations Board that construction giant Ledcor's slow walk to a first contract wasn't just trying to break the union but was breaking the law.
After almost 1,200 days of fruitless, demoralizing, dismissive "negotiations" that led to 160 weeks on a picket line, the CIRB ruled for first time in at least 40 years and only the seventh time in Canadian history that an employer was not bargaining in good faith and the CIRB would impose a first contract.
The hard-fought win, which came at a significant cost to Local 213 and the Ledcor workers in time and money, laid bare just how broken worker's rights are in Canada and provides a momentum boost for worker-friendly legislation like a national ban on the use of scabs.
"We didn't just outlast them, we outsmarted them," said Local 213 Assistant Business Manager Robin Nedila, who served as lead negotiator. "We knew they were going to stick-handle their way through the laws, do just enough to make the union spend all its money, give up and go away. But they didn't reckon on us having the resources, ambition, and, at the end, plain fury. We said it again and again: You don't [expletive] do this in B.C."
That the ruling was so starkly critical of the employer and yet took so long is a devastating indictment of the state of Canadian workers' rights, said Local 213 Business Manager Jim Lofty.
"The board should have been the referee four years ago, and we could have picked a different fight," he said. "How many groups have died not even starting a campaign because of the playbook these multibillion-dollar companies have? If we get 100 members, that's a win, sure, but we spent these years and funds to change the whole labor code and win thousands of new union members across Canada."
'We Knew It Wasn't Normal'
Justin Li never thought about a union when he joined Ledcor Technical Services in 2009 as a residential installer, but by the time fellow tech Dustin Brecht started looking for a union to help them organize in 2017, Li was thinking of little else.
"There were little drives before then. Murmurings, but no one ever contacted me directly," he said. "I was ready to listen this time."
There had been pay cuts before, but now they were swallowing a near-20% slash. LTS blamed Telus, the provincial telecom company they contracted with, but Li didn't buy it.
"LTS was known for having some of the highest margins in the business. They just didn't put up a fight for us. They just caved in," Li said.
There were layoffs also, and when there weren't layoffs, the threat was ever present. It was also how they were fired.
It was company practice to schedule a mandatory safety meeting at a hotel. One time, 100 techs, some who had worked at the company for a decade, got the call. Sitting in the parking lot were 100 cabs.
All 100 got a pink slip and a cab voucher and were sent to the void.
A final straw for some was when LTS bid and won telecom contracts out of province and sent the Vancouver-based techs far from home to do the work.
"I wasn't hired to be an out-of-town worker, but they just started sending guys out of town and you had to take it. They said it was to 'help the team,'" Li said.
He found himself in Regina, Saskatchewan, two provinces east and about 1,100 miles from Vancouver.
Brecht said he settled on Local 213 because it already represented workers in the Telecom industry and Nedila came from the industry.
The drive was wrapped up in short order and recognized in August 2017, although Li said the unit was under no illusions that a first contract was going to be quick or easy.
"We just felt that we would go through the normal process. We knew it would take a while and there would be a back and forth," he said. "It was probably the next year that we knew it wasn't normal."
When the company hired one of the most infamous union-busting law firms in the country, the mood darkened. Some of the unit members began complaining, regretting their vote to organize.
"I always asked them what the alternative was. We were already getting layoffs and pay cuts, more work for less money, work conditions never improving and never what they promised," Li said. "I had tolerated this for seven years; would it have gotten better if we hadn't stood up?"
Brecht and Nedila, meanwhile, had been slogging through some of the worst negotiations they had ever seen.
"I've been in hundreds of negotiations, often with companies that really don't want a union and are happy to use all the tricks their lawyers have ginned up over the years to put us off, but I have never felt worse than when I came out of those meetings," Nedila said. "The disrespect. The delay. The endless generalities."
A strike was the last thing they wanted to do, he said. But the mediation was almost meaningless. For nearly 800 days, the two sides came to agreements on small side issues, but LTS would not make a single specific proposal on what really mattered: wages, hours or a closed shop.
By July 2019, amid a demoralizing months-long federal mediation program that hadn't even produced a contract offer, the unit voted 79% in favor of a strike. But they held off walking out on the promise that, finally, the offer was coming.
What they ultimately got in September, Nedila said, will go down as one of the worst first-contract proposals in Canadian labor history. Wages would be determined at the sole discretion of the company and could change at any time for any reason and without notification to the union. Hours would be set each morning. And there would be no closed shop.
"When we saw it on paper, it was shocking," Nedila said. "It was completely ridiculous. But after two years, I was just devastated for the men and women. And pissed."
Then the company laid off nearly three dozen workers in the residential installation department, where Li had once worked and where support for the union was highest — complete with fake safety meeting and taxis idling in the hotel parking lot.
There was no need for a unit meeting to consider the offer or hold another strike authorization. On Oct. 1, 2019, they just went out.
"In the early part of the strike, we thought it would be over in a few weeks or even a few months," Li said.
Instead, Li found himself on a picket at Ledcor's Vancouver office four hours a day, five days a week until January 2021.
He stopped walking full time only when his application to Local 213's apprenticeship program was accepted. He was one of about 10 LTS strikers who joined the apprenticeship. Several dozen more took jobs working for signatory telecom contractors that competed against LTS.
While British Columbia has strong protections for workers, including first-contract legislation that can be imposed within a year and anti-scab rules that prevent companies from even temporarily replacing striking workers, telecommunications is one of a handful of industries exempt from provincial laws. For telecom, rail, shipping and a few other sectors, federal labor law is all that matters, and there are no anti-scab or first-contract protections there.
By December 2019, Brecht and Nedila were reduced to combing through the Canadian National Labour Code.
"We were desperate," Nedila said. "We were reading the code line by line, looking for something that was worth a shot. There has to be a way to hold a company responsible."
They found it in Section 80, which involves an appeal to the labor minister that a party to a union drive is not negotiating in good faith. If the minister agrees, they could make a referral to the CIRB to make a determination.
"Our counsel said he had no idea the last time a Section 80 request had been made, let alone when one was successful, but it was at least back in the '80s," Brecht said.
This was their darkest moment, Lofty said. He received permission to solicit funds. Within a year, dozens of locals offered help. Some sent money, and some, Lofty said, just sent messages of solidarity, like "We can't send money, but fight like hell."
"We were an hour away at times, asking if this was the moment we throw in the towel. That money and even just the messages filled our sails," he said.
The Hail Mary worked. The labor minister referred the Section 80 appeal to the CIRB in March 2020. The hearing was held in April 2022. The ruling was issued in November 2022.
The 72-page CIRB decision was explicit.
"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. … [T]he employer's actions resulted in the denial of the representational rights granted in the certification.
"[A]t least since July 2020, LTS has hoped that the union will simply go away … and that it will be allowed to carry on its business unimpeded by a [collective agreement]," the board continued. "Canadian law is clear. … The duty to bargain in good faith and make every reasonable effort is a continuous duty from when notice to bargain is given until the final resolution of an agreement."
The board committed to imposing a collective bargaining agreement "as a required correction because the employer did not bargain in good faith. … [T]here was a failure of the collective bargaining process as a result of the employer's conduct."
But the CIRB has not imposed a first contract yet. It ordered the parties back to the negotiating table with no strict deadline but it empowered the federal mediator to update her two-year-old report and make a recommendation.
First District International Representative Adam Van Steinburg, who as business manager of Local 213 launched the telecom organizing drive, said the contract should take into account who was hurt and how deeply.
"Many of these workers are new Canadians, immigrants and women, and they were kicked in the teeth and left to bleed for half a decade," he said. "So, standing up out of the dirt and looking Ledcor in the eye as equals feels [expletive] good."
Beyond Local 213
More importantly, the resolution of the Ledcor case has built undeniable momentum for the New Democratic Party's proposal for national anti-scab legislation, said First District International Representative Matt Wayland, the IBEW's senior political advisor in Canada.
In the NDP's Confidence and Supply Agreement to support Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal Party minority government in May 2022, party leader Jagmeet Singh made several party priorities non-negotiable. One of them was anti-scab legislation. In other words, if Trudeau's government does not pass it, the NDP is prepared to let the government fall.
The only debate now is whether the Liberals committed to protections for strikes and lockouts or just strikes. Shewchuk and Wayland are clear that they want both. Shewchuk, the First District international vice president, is clear that he wants both.
"Anything less and it's just more loopholes," Shewchuk said. "Look, it is incumbent on us to say: 'You want our support? We want clear answers.'"
Lofty said the saga will give pause to the "robber barons" of Canadian industry.
"They counted on someone walking away: the picketers, Local 213 or the whole Canadian labor movement. We stuck and they lost, maybe for the first time. It's my crusade to get laws passed nationally and in every province," he said. "No business plan that abuses workers should be legal in Canada, period."
Li said he has no intention of returning to LTS or the telecom industry, but he hasn't felt like the fight was for himself.
"We weren't just fighting for our contract anymore. The union was sacrificing so many dollars and resources to keep us going and keep our fight going. We didn't want to let anyone down or just take this," Li said. "We were fighting for workers, all workers everywhere. It was bigger than just for us."
Reprinted from The Electrical Worker, March 2023