Business

A SHOCK DOWN THE LINE

D’ARCY JENISH January 25 1999
Business

A SHOCK DOWN THE LINE

D’ARCY JENISH January 25 1999

A SHOCK DOWN THE LINE

Business

Bell’s plan to quit the operator service puts 2,400 jobs on hold

D’ARCY JENISH

Chris King expected to spend the afternoon talking wages and benefits when she sat down for a union-management bargaining session at a downtown Montreal hotel on Jan. 11. King, a Bell Canada operator from Windsor, Ont., was part of a 15-member team negotiating a new contract for 2,400 unionized operators employed by the Montrealbased telecommunications giant. Bargaining began last October and continued until Dec. 18, when the two sides broke for Christmas. According to King, Bell negotiators told the union team that they would have an offer on wages and benefits ready when negotiations resumed in the new year. Instead, they returned with a bombshell announcement: Bell intends to sell its operator-assistance division to Tempe, Ariz.-based Excell Global Services, which provides local and long-distance information, among other things, to telephone companies in five countries. “It was sort of like a bad dream,” recalls King, a Bell employee for 22 years. “It’s hard to explain how I felt.”

Others registered their emotions immediately. Many members of the largely female workforce, who handle 411 and 0 calls, wept openly as Bell managers at 55 offices throughout Ontario and Quebec broke the news to them. While company spokesmen insisted the jobs would remain in Canada, they later acknowledged that some offices will be closed and that pay will be cut. Union members say wages, which currently average $19.50 per hour, could be reduced by as much as 40 per cent, and claim they may be stripped of seniority and benefits. The deal may also jeopardize a potential equity settlement that the workers have been attempting to negotiate with Bell. Labour leaders were furious. Canadian Labour Congress president Bob White described Bell as “outrageous, irresponsible and just plain greedy,” particularly since its profit was $829 million in the first nine months of 1998, compared with $852 million for all of 1997.

And the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, which represents the operators, is planning a campaign to mobilize public opinion against Bell. The union’s resolve was bolstered by an overnight opinion poll of 600 people that found 80 per cent opposed Bell’s plans. “They’ve declared war on these operators and people are offended,” says CEP vice-president Richard Long.

But Bell president John MacDonald insists there are valid business reasons for selling the operator service. He told Maclean’s it is a high-cost and money-losing operation, although the company has not released specific figures. The decision to sell is part of a larger corporate transition that began in 1992, when the federal government ended Bell’s decades-old monopoly on long-distance services. Since then, two aggressive competitors, AT&T Canada and Sprint Canada, have snapped up close to 40 per cent of the business. “Consumers want the absolute best service for the best price,” says MacDonald. “They vote with their pocketbooks. If you’re not cost competitive, you’re not going to be in the marketplace too long.” Bell has responded by trying to become leaner and more entrepreneurial. MacDonald said that several divisions, including those responsible for real estate, inside installations, and the erection of telephone poles and lines, have been hived off and turned into wholly-owned subsidiaries. In the process, Bell’s payroll shrank 25 per cent, from 52,900 to 39,300 between 1992 and 1997, while total spending on wages and salaries fell to $2.2 billion annually from $2.5 billion during the same period. “The past several years have been stressful on employees, no question,” says MacDonald. “But I think every employee recognizes we have to change.”

The operators, who handle up to 1,000 calls each per work shift, or one every 20 to 25 seconds, say they have adjusted to the competitive pressures. Their numbers have been cut in half since the early 1990s and union leaders insist that, contrary to the company’s claims, the division is profitable. Gary Cwitco, a Toronto-based CEP national representative, says the company asked the union in early 1997 to accept wage and benefit reductions, and also indicated that the division might be sold unless costs were reduced. Instead, the two sides formed a joint committee to examine the operation. Cwitco says a financial review showed the division was making money—something the company now denies. “We’ve known for a long time that Bell was coming after the operators,” he says. “But when

I heard the news my first reaction was: those heartless bastards.” Bell provided few details about how the sale, scheduled to close by March 31, will affect the employees. The company said operators will be offered jobs in a new firm controlled by Excell Global Services. Workers may be forced to move because, according to union estimates, the 55 call centres could be reduced to as few as five large offices. Excell Global Services was no more forthcoming. A receptionist handling media inquiries said senior executives were not granting inter-

views, nor would they provide any information about the company.

Union officials argue that the deal will allow Bell to transfer the operators, who have, on average, 17 years service, to a new company where they will start with no seniority and no collective agreement. They also suspect Bell may be trying to avoid a multimillion-dollar pay equity settlement with the workers. Patricia Blackstaffe, assistant to the president of CEP, said a company-union study completed in November, 1992, found wage disparities of up to 20 per cent between the operators and similar male-dominated jobs. The union filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission after Bell offered pay hikes totalling two per cent. It is currently stalled in the courts. A Federal Court of Canada judge last March upheld Bell’s objections to the legitimacy of a three-member human rights tribunal presiding over the case and shut down the hearings. The Federal Court of Appeal overturned that decision and Bell is now seeking leave to appeal to the Supreme Court.

The controversy over the operators occurred only weeks after MacDonald announced in a company newsletter that “employee fulfilment” would be one of Bell’s four major objectives in 1999. He was responding to the results of an employee survey, conducted last fall, which disclosed serious morale problems. While 81 per cent of the respondents said they wanted to build their careers within Bell, more than 40 per cent said that senior managers were not open or honest in their dealings with employees. And 45 per cent did not believe that Bell has a “a sincere interest in the well-being” of its staff.

The fate of the operators could further damage morale, as well as raising questions about the company’s commitment to “employee fulfilment.” Certainly, the news that their division will be sold left many of the operators fearful. Sandy Kelba, a 36-year-old operator and single mother in Port Colborne, Ont, had put her house up for sale in order to take a position at a Bell site in London in March. Last week, she wondered whether she would have a job to support herself and her six-year-old son. Toronto operator Audrey Thornton, 47, who has 25 years service, expressed doubts about whether she could find another job. She said she may have to forget about sending the oldest of her two boys to community college next fall. “It’s difficult for everybody,” she said. “I’ve had a lump in my throat for two days, and then they tell you to go back to work and do your job. It’s not easy.” □