BUSINESS/ECONOMY

For whom the bells toll

JOHN DALY July 11 1988
BUSINESS/ECONOMY

For whom the bells toll

JOHN DALY July 11 1988

For whom the bells toll

Thousands of Bell Canada customers who called 411 for information last week received only busy signals as Bell Canada’s 19,500 striking workers in Quebec, Ontario and parts of the Northwest Territories pressed their contract demands. Talks between Bell and the Communications and Electrical Workers of Canada (CWC) broke off on June 24. The union, as well as demanding annual wage increases ranging above five per cent until 1990, wants limits on Bell’s use of part-time workers and on the amount of work contracted out to nonunion firms. CWC spokesman Joseph Hanafin said that, by refusing to hire more full-time workers, Bell was “creating a pool of working poor.”

Bell spokesman Marilyn Koen defended Bell’s use of temporary staff and contracting out. She said that service demands vary and the company has to be flexible: should work loads fall off in future recessionary times, part-time staff can be dismissed and contracts dropped. In anticipation of a strike, Bell began several weeks ago training 6,000 managers to do the jobs of the union members. But if management crews cannot handle the work load, the results could be costly for business. About 19,000 new businesses are registered to start operations each month in the areas affected by the strike. Installation of their communications equipment will be delayed, and any type of signal carried by phone lines—including voice, facsimile transmissions and bank-machine transactions—could be disrupted. But last week, management teams quickly restored service following several equipment failures—including that of an underground cable in Montreal, which Koen said had been cut with a chain saw.

Some financial analysts said that a strike probably would not hurt Bell, which posted a 1987 profit of $731 million on revenues of $6.4 billion. John McKimm, a vice-president with Toronto-based Prudential-Bache Securities Canada Ltd., said that reduced revenues would be offset by lower wage costs. Added McKimm: “The net impact on Bell could be positive in the short term.” He said that pressure on the union will continue as Bell strives to cut costs. Bell is facing greater competition for new services from private companies as well as public demands for lower rates. As a result, neither Bell nor its union expects an early end to the busy signals.

-JOHN DALY