November 7th, members of the Telecommunications Workers Union (TWU) voted 73.7 per cent in favour of joining the United Steelworkers (USW).
As North America’s largest private sector union, with more than 225,000 Canadian members, the USW has a lot to offer the substantially smaller TWU, which represents 12,000 telecommunication workers from across Canada.
“In the end we interviewed 4 different unions and the committee they presented to ultimately unanimously recommended the United Steelworkers,” said TWU President Lee Riggs. “This merger will help us improve the working lives of our members.”
In the face of declining union density, legislative attacks on labour, and increasing financial pressures, union mergers have become a popular tactic for union rejuvenation in the Canadian labour movement, the argument being that there is strength in numbers — and pooled resources. Last year two of Canada’s largest private sector unions, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP), entered into an historic merger forming Unifor, now Canada’s largest private sector union.
This will become the USW’s 19th merger in recent years, but “its not just about numbers,” said Steelworker’s President Ken Neumann. “For each and every time that we’ve had a merger I can honestly and truly say that we become a better organization for the numbers coming in and the numbers that we represent, and I truly believe that there’s nothing about this merger. They’re basically in many places where we are and that will help us mobilize even further in those communities.”
With the members gained from the TWU, the Steelworkers have now doubled their membership in federally regulated industries. But in addition to gaining clout in a new sector and within the labour movement, Neumann says that what the USW really stands to gain is greater diversity and energy in their membership.
“This is a new sector for us,” said Neumann, “the energy that they bring and the talent that they bring we look forward to enhancing that and one of the areas in particular is helping new members join the movement.” On its own, the TWU did not have the resources needed to engage in large-scale organizing. “Now with this merged union we are going to be very much involved in organizing be it at Shaw, be it at Telus, to build the density,” said Neumann.
Unlike last year’s Unifor merger, where two individual unions were dissolved to form a new merged union, the TWU will remain intact as an autonomous national local of the USW. Members will have access to education and training programs through the USW, but the USW will have no involvement in the governance of the telecommunication workers’ pension and benefit plans.
With bargaining rapidly approaching, the merger will also give TWU members access to the USW’s $300 million Strike and Defence Fund, as well as their research and legal teams, and bargaining support staff.
“The Steelworkers are not going to be at the bargaining table specifically but they are going to be providing support through strategic campaigns, providing economists to us, that sort of thing,” said Riggs.
The TWU first announced its intent to engage in discussions to merge with the USW in November 2012, and by August 2013 a tentative merger agreement was reached. TWU members voted 64.4 per cent in favour of the merger last November, coming in just shy of the required 66 per cent, or two-thirds majority vote needed to ratify to merger.
The merger agreement was then revised and accepted in yesterday’s referendum, where TWU members voted 73.7 per cent in favour of the merger. Balloting was conducted electronically, over a 24-day period and voter turnout for the ratification was 52 per cent, the highest in the unions history.
The merger will take effect January 1, 2015, but the two unions have already initiated joint activities. The agreement includes strong, mutual commitments around collective bargaining, education, organizing and legislative action.
Ella Bedard is rabble.ca’s labour intern. She has written about labour issues for Dominion.ca and the Halifax Media Co-op and is the co-producer of the radio documentary The Amelie: Canadian Refugee Policy and the Story of the 1987 Boat People. She now lives in Toronto where she enjoys chasing the labour beat, biking and birding.
Photo: Grant Neufelt