Labour negotiations involving telcos on either coast are heating up, with one union being granted a strike mandate and another gearing up for a fierce battle with its employer. While neither dispute seems likely to head to the picket line soon, enough bad blood exists to make hopes of a harmonious settlement seem very distant indeed. Last week, members of the Telecommunications Workers Union (TWU) voted 84.5 per cent to give the TWU a strike mandate. Over 7,000 employees of Telus Corp. in Alberta and British Columbia cast ballots between October 26 and November 12. Union VP Bruce Bell tells Network Letter talks are continuing, with sessions scheduled for November 18. Telus has been granted the conciliation it had asked for earlier (NL, Oct. 21/02). "In our view, bargaining never broke off," Bell states. "We had dates into the new year and we still have those dates. We took time out for a couple of weeks to do a strike vote." The fight between the union and the telco has been quite rancorous at times, with the company seeking to establish a totally new collective agreement out of the ashes of five previous agreements cobbled together when BCTel and Telus merged (NL, Sept. 23/02). A similar battle is brewing on the east coast, where Aliant Telecom Inc. is attempting to reach a deal with its staff. Like Telus, Aliant was formed when several smaller telcos merged into a larger group. The former constituent bodies of Island Tel, Maritime Tel & Tel, NewTel, and NBTel had nine agreements among them. Most were with the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP), with three bargaining units being represented by a smaller association, the Atlantic Communications and Technical Workers’ Union (ACTWU). The CEP and ACTWU formed a joint council, which has been given approval by the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) to negotiate on behalf of Aliant workers. CEP administrative VP Ervan Cronk says the two sides have been talking for months, but have made little headway. "We describe it as watching paint dry," he explains. "It’s been quite encumbered by the fact that the employer has taken the view that it’s like a first collective agreement. Unnecessarily, we think, in that there are in all of those nine agreements a lot of language that’s been tried, tested and been around for a long time." Meetings are scheduled for well into next spring. Cronk expects an application by Aliant to the CIRB seeking to establish essential services and essential workers in case of a strike will further delay movement. His reading of the Canada Labour Code suggests the employees couldn’t strike until after the CIRB rules on the Aliant motion. His experience with the CIRB suggests no ruling is likely until the spring. Both sides still have a great deal of ground to cover. Basic topics in any labour agreement have not yet been touched. "We haven’t got into meat and substance issue likes hours of work and pay and vacation and pensions and benefits in any way," the CEP executive reports. One sticking point is likely to be the work week. Under the old collective agreements, employees worked 37.5 or 38 hours each week. Aliant is asking for that to be raised to 40 hours. Cronk believes much of the drive to consolidate at Aliant comes from its parent company Bell Canada. Ever since it assumed majority control of the Atlantic telco (NL, Oct. 11/99), Bell has mixed-and-matched the two ILECs. Aliant CEO Stephen Wetmore is now executive VP of BCE Inc. and vice-chair corporate of Bell; Roch Dubé spent a year as head of Aliant before transferring back to Bell (NL, Nov. 4/02). Cronk expects further straitening in areas like HR departments, payroll departments and network operating centres. He points to the recent abandonment of Aliant’s VibeVision digital TV product in favour of Bell ExpressVu’s satellite TV product as further evidence of consolidation within the conglomerate.