At first glance I find it hard to make sense of the Aliant strike. Avery profitable company that claims it is “deeply committed to thecommunities in which its employees live and work,” forces its 4,300workers to walk the picket lines for more than three months.

For the past two and a half years Aliant workers have been operatingunder expired agreements. They are still looking for their firstcontract since the merger of the four Atlantic telephone companies in1999. The unions are seeking an agreement that brings together the fourprevious contracts, while Aliant wants a contract that would result inconcessions to some of the expired collective agreements.

Most of the provisions that the workers are asking for are already inplace in one or more of the expired provincial contracts. For example,the provisions limiting contracting out already exist in the collectiveagreement that the Newfoundland and Labrador workers had.

Aliant appears intent on undermining its workforce and jeopardizing itsreputation in the region, but to what end?

It is difficult for Aliant to plead poverty. Aliant proudly proclaimsitself to be Atlantic Canada’s largest publicly traded company and“Canada’s third largest full-service telecommunications business.”According to the Report on Business’ most recent ranking by profit ofthe top 1000 Canadian corporations, Aliant moved up from 57th place in2002 to 44th in 2003. In 2003 Aliant had profits of $306 million, a 72 per centincrease over 2002.

Aliant makes much of its connections to Atlantic Canada, but itsownership structure suggests a different story. Fifty-three per cent ofAliant is owned by central Canadian based BCE Inc. and Bell Canada,(Bell Canada is 100 per cent owned by BCE Inc). And what about profitability ofthe parent companies? Bell had the fourth highest profits in Canada at$2.3 billion for 2002 and BCE Inc. was eighth with a profit of $1.8billion.

According to their promotional material Aliant is “deeply committed togiving back to our region.” But it appears unwilling to share theprofits made in the region in the most tangible and direct way —providing stable well paying jobs, that in turn support the localeconomy.

Bell Canada is a key player in these negotiations and is concerned aboutmore that Aliant’s bottom line. Bell is currently in contractnegotiations with its employees in Ontario and Quebec. The get toughapproach with Aliant employees sends a message to Bell’s employees asthey ponder their options.

Aliant and Bell Canada do face some future challenges. Cable companiesare beginning to provide some competition with their cable-basedtelephone connections. There is also some possibility in the future ofinternet-based telephone service.

But change in the telecommunications industry is regulated and Bell andAliant are better off than most in their ability to deal with andbenefit from technological change. Part of the role of thetelecommunication industry watchdog, the CRTC, is to ensure stability,Canadian ownership and broad access to telephone service. The CRTCwould not allow the sudden collapse of major very profitable Canadiantelecommunications providers.

Let’s also not forget that Bell Canada has already started to diversify.It owns CTV, The Globe and Mail and satellite TV provider Bell Expressvu.Aliant is also active in wireless communication, provision of internetservices and other areas of information technology. In other words,Aliant and Bell will manage just fine. They have access to the funds toinnovate and to fend off competition.

I’m still left with the question as to why a very profitable company isunnecessarily demanding concessions from its workers. Part of thereason appears to be a desire to soften up the unions as Aliant developsa new corporate strategy. Rather than develop a stable, well trainedand well paid workforce whose skills will be flexible enough to adjustand cope with technological changes, Aliant is pushing for the abilityto allow for more contracting out.

Vincent Mosco, Canada Research Chair for Communication and Society atQueens University, sees another troubling motivation behind labourdispute. According to Mosco, telephone companies are “aggressivelytrying to break their unions” as they compete with cable companies whichare for the most part not unionized and do not pay their employees aswell. The telephone companies are attempting to limit unions to theslow growth areas of communication and contract out the work in thenewer technologies to non-union subsidiaries. Aliant’s non-unionsubsidiary X-Wave is an example.

Mosco also sees the labour unrest as a sign of the growing number andpower of “communication workers,” demanding better terms and conditionsand more respect.

This strike could go on for some time yet. It appears that communicationworkers in other parts of Canada are watching this strike closely andhave recently contributed $3 million to support the strikers. Unions inAtlantic Canada are also raising funds to support the Aliant workers.

Aliant’s actions draw into question its commitment to Atlantic Canada.A contract settlement that leaves workers more vulnerable through weakpension provisions and more contracting out will have a detrimentaleffect on the communities that Aliant claims to be so “deeply committedto.” The company’s failure to negotiate a fair agreement in a timelymanner is already damaging to our communities.