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Freedom Mobile workers seeking union after acquisition: Teamsters Canada

Call centre workers have been unionizing for years, said economist and labour expert Jim Stanford
A woman walks past a Freedom Mobile in Toronto on Thursday, November 24, 2016. On the heels of the sale of Freedom Mobile, and amid an increased interest in unionization among retail and service workers, Teamsters Canada says retail and call centre employees at Freedom Mobile are looking to unionize.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

On the heels of the sale of Freedom Mobile, labour union Teamsters Canada said retail and call centre employees at the telecom company are interested in unionization.

As a condition of the merger between Rogers Communications Inc. and Shaw Communications Inc., which was closed in April, Shaw agreed to sell Freedom Mobile to Quebecor’s Videotron.

New ownership can lead to change in workplaces, and so workers concerned about their future have been reaching out to the union, said Christopher Monette, director of public affairs at Teamsters Canada.

Since the merger, the union has had “hundreds of conversations” with workers across the country, said Monette.

“It’s been very positive,” he said. “The campaign is progressing rapidly.”

No major changes to Freedom Mobile’s retail or call centre workforce have been announced since the acquisition, but Monette said it has “set off a wave of uncertainty and anxiety among workers at the company, who are now looking for ways to protect their jobs, protect what they have in terms of wages and working conditions, and, indeed, maybe even go out and secure even better wages and working conditions.”

Videotron declined to comment on the unionization efforts, though it confirmed it’s aware that the union has been approaching Freedom Mobile employees. Quebecor did not respond to requests for comment.

Call centre workers have been unionizing for years, said economist and labour expert Jim Stanford, as the work is challenging and tends to be low-paid.

Workers likely already had concerns, but it’s natural that a moment of corporate uncertainty would make those concerns more urgent, said Stanford.

“This is another example of how workers in any industry in Canada understand that they’re vulnerable to inflation, to restructuring, to job loss,if they don’t have a collective voice and some bargaining power,” said Stanford.

Because the telecommunications sector is federally regulated, the union plans to organize all the workers through the Canada Industrial Relations Board under a single bargaining unit, said Monette.

Organizing federally may be easier for the workers and the union, as the certification process has fewer steps than under most provincial guidelines, and the union wouldn’t be trying to unionize multiple workplaces under various provincial labour boards.

Federal labour law has used card-check certification since 2017, meaning that for federally regulated workers, if more than 50 per cent sign a union card, the labour relations board will consider them unionized — as opposed to a secret ballot system, where a certain percentage of signed cards triggers the additional step of a vote. Such a two-step system gives employers an opportunity to union-bust, said Monette.

Being able to organize as a single unit with card-check certification would be to the workers’ advantage, said Stanford.

Some provinces have card-check certification, like British Columbia, while many including Ontario do not.

Whether they can unionize the workers on a federal level depends on the nature of the employment relationship, said Supriya Routh, an associate professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia. If the workers are direct employees of Freedom then they should be considered federally regulated workers, but any independent contractors or workers who otherwise aren’t direct employees of Freedom likely wouldn’t be, he said.

While the merger appears to have kicked off a wave of interest at the company, Monette also sees this new interest as part of a wider trend going on among retail and service workers. Unions have been saying they’re seeing more interest from workers in historically under-unionized sectors in the wake of the pandemic and inflation.

“There’s a sense that after years of inequality, after the pandemic, and now after rising inflation, workers in this country and indeed across North America just aren’t getting a fair shake. And we’re seeing a huge increase in interest for unions in Canada,” said Monette.

Routh said COVID-19 showed how unstable many employment relationships could be, and workers are seeking more stability, especially amid high-profile layoffs by large companies in Canada and the U.S.

Unions have been bargaining wage increases in the face of inflation, and non-unionized workers are likely taking note, he said.

“They have shown workers what differences could unionization make, so workers might be slightly more interested in unionizing,” he said.

Teamsters has seen an increase in interest from workers across the board, not only at Freedom Mobile, said Monette, with membership rising since just the beginning of this year.

“It’s all extremely encouraging,” he said.

If the Freedom Mobile workers unionize successfully, it would send a “powerful message” to other workers in retail and service, said Monette.

“If Freedom Mobile workers can do it, then so can anyone else,” he said.

Rosa Saba, The Canadian Press

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