Virtually all members in the CUPE telecommunications sector work for private sector employers under federal jurisdiction. Telecommunication and broadcasting undertakings are also regulated by the CRTC. The sector has approximately 7,000 members, the vast of majority of whom (more than 98%) are in Quebec.
Locals in the communications sector can be divided into three subsectors. Telecommunications, the largest, has more than 80% of the members and includes cable distribution, telephony and Internet service providers (Cogeco, Telus, Videotron, and Acronym Solutions, Bruce Telecom and Cochrane Telecom Services). Radio, television and the print media (Groupe TVA, Global, RNC Media, Cogeco Media, Bell Media, CTV, Rogers, Vista Radio and the Journal de Québec) account for approximately 15% of members, with the remaining four or so per cent in cinematography and post-production (SETTE, NFB and Difuze).
The major job types represented by CUPE in telecommunications include information technology technicians and specialists, call centre attendants, office staff, journalists, creative technicians (camera operators, switchers, editors, integrators and sound mixers), producers and advertising representatives.
The communications sector is constantly changing due to its heavy reliance on ever-evolving technology, which alters users’ consumption habits, companies’ business practices, not to mention their supporting legislation and regulations. Substantial changes to work organization, dislocations and job losses are often an unfortunate by-product.
Though relatively unscathed in recent years, the number of members in the telecommunications sub-sector has declined.
With the integration of new technology, employers prefer to hire young people right out of school rather than train their long-standing employees. As a result, job vacancies are not posted. Contracting out to foreign countries, which is made easier by the Internet, remains a major issue.
Telecoms employers are increasingly scooping up start-ups or reaching turnkey agreements with other companies to incorporate new ways of doing things or to provide new services as part of their activities. By doing so, they have no qualms about skirting technological provisions in collective agreements, claiming that the services are new and not an evolution of the technology already used by the company. They also refuse to offer training and development, stating that the employees themselves are responsible for keeping their skills up to date.
Corporate structures and certifications
Employers in the sector have become quite adept at creating corporate structures to get out from under the parameters of union certifications. At Telus, unionized workers have been scattered throughout many non-union affiliates of the company where more than 200 positions could be organized. Québecor (Groupe TVA, Videotron, Journal de Québec) has also shifted its unionized staff to non-unionized units in recent years, while demanding that the affected employees renounce their collective agreement to keep their jobs.
A shifting legal environment
Following an initial bill (C-10) that died on the order paper prior to the September 2021 election, the federal government is attempting once again to modernize the Broadcasting Act to include online undertakings such as Netflix and Disney+. The aim of Bill C-11 is to establish a fair competitive environment for Canadian and foreign broadcasting undertakings by compelling them to adhere to operating conditions to support the production of Canadian programs. The government’s inaction on this matter since 2012 has left millions (if not billions) of dollars in the hands of the competitors, which they used to innovate and pull the rug out from under cable distribution and IP distribution undertakings.
For the first time in 2021, the percentage of cable subscribers (66%) lagged behind the corresponding figure for subscriptions of online paid streaming services (71%) in Quebec. This meant less funding for community television channels (which are financed by a percentage of cable distribution income), traditional television and radio, whose ratings and advertising income declined. Between 2016 and 2020, more than 1,600 jobs were lost in traditional and optional television in Canada along with 1,100 more in radio.
CUPE intervened during parliamentary proceedings to support Bill C-11 and to demand that it be amended to afford better protection for jobs in the electronic media and among cable distributors. Once passed, it will take until 2025 or even later to adapt CRTC regulations to the new Streaming Act.
Another bill tabled by the federal government is aimed at levelling the playing field for Canadian media producing online news and large undertakings that own social media outlets and search engines. The intent of Bill C-18 is to implement in Canada a system similar to the one in Australia where web giants are forced to negotiate agreements with Canadian media to compensate them for using their journalistic content. If an agreement cannot be reached, the parties will be able to resort to final offer selection arbitration by the CRTC. The media outlets will also be authorized to bargain collectively with online intermediaries. It is estimated that Facebook and Google alone take in more than 80% of digital advertising income in Canada.
Mergers and acquisitions
The sector continued along the consolidation path with the announcement of a merger between two Canadian telecommunications giants, Rogers and Shaw, in 2021. This transaction will reconfigure the industry as telecommunications assets will be sold off due to the fact the Competition Bureau rejected the initial deal. From a broadcasting standpoint, CRTC approval of the purchase of Shaw could have an adverse impact on Global’s finances and on the Independent Local News Fund.
The past two years also saw Cogeco acquire Déry Télécom and Bell take over Ebox, a low-price reseller.
Underfunding of the National Film Board
The National Film Board is being seriously underfunded and has seen its parliamentary authorities stagnate at between $65 and $70 million per year since the early 2000s.
This apparent stability masks a major inflation-induced decline in the board’s purchasing power, which is threatening the jobs of its members. The board’s public funding has thus dropped $20 million in 20 years (in constant dollars). Though the National Film Board received the equivalent of $77 million to fulfill its mission in 2001-2002, it actually had only $57 million to work with in 2021-2022. CUPE intervened in pre-budget consultations in Ottawa to demand increased funding.
Wages, working conditions and job losses
Unionized workers in the sector are paid relatively good wages, but some trades do have a harder time retaining their talent. Such is especially the case with our members in IT and in middle-management positions, and the gap between our members’ salaries and those paid by companies elsewhere has been widening. This has prompted numerous resignations in our ranks, in spite of the better benefit packages we offer.
Negotiated wage settlements, which have been paltry in recent years (ranging from 0 to 1.5% in the media sub-sector and up to 2.5% in telecommunications), are beginning to rise due to inflation and labour shortages. One local was able to negotiate increases of up to 3% in spite of a shrinking media sub-sector.
Negotiations of a first collective agreement between a group organized in late 2019 and Bell Media wrapped up early in the year.
Contracting out, precarious employment and technological change
Since the communications sector is almost entirely private, the profit motive is predominant. It has been noted in recent years that the numbers of sub-contractors, persons occupying temporary positions and freelancers have been on the rise, and employers, meanwhile, are resorting to strategies to move work to non-unionized affiliates where jobs are more precarious and even to foreign countries where wages and working conditions are not as good.
Technological change, which is driving the contracting out phenomenon in the sector, makes it easier for teleworking. Unions thus have a harder time ensuring compliance with collective agreements, and this has raised some concerns.
Recruiting and unionization
Excluding pandemic-related job losses, the sector has shed more than 800 members in the past four years, which has, once again, brought the recruitment of new union members to the forefront.
The unionization rate is rather high in companies that are major players in the sector, but some groups in these organizations could be unionized. On the other hand, workers in small companies or new start-ups are often not as likely to be unionized. Expanding the sector to include other related activities such as video games is an option.
In the context of rapid technological change, the training and development of workers in the sector have become ever more important. This is particularly the case in the telecommunications sector where companies will eventually need fewer IT jobs but more artificial intelligence specialists.
Almost all workplaces in the sector do have pension plans, ranging from a mix of defined contribution plans, defined benefit plans and group RRSPs. Employers in private sector companies that still offer a defined benefit plan, however, do want to scale down benefits to reduce their own risk.
Spawned by a resolution at the Conseil provincial du secteur des communications convention in 2017, a campaign to prohibit the offshoring of telecommunications jobs was launched in the summer of 2020 and transformed in the spring of 2021. The campaign known as Nos télécoms, nos emplois (Our Telecoms, Our Jobs) is demanding that telecommunications undertakings receiving large federal and provincial subsidies for broad-band deployment put a halt to contracting out work overseas in order to create good jobs in Canada. The campaign, which now includes Unifor, is also demanding the development of anti-scab provisions federally. It is calling on the involvement of members and citizens, citing the need to manage public funds effectively and to protect personal information by keeping it in Canada.
An ad hoc committee on technological change was established by CUPE Quebec in 2019 at the initiative of CUPE 2815. Under the direction of the president of the communications sector, the committee surveyed the executives of locals in Quebec and discovered that this issue is of concern to about one-quarter of the unions. The committee was given a mandate to advise the CUPE Quebec Executive on positions to be taken with respect to disruptive technologies such as 5G, artificial intelligence, the use of the Internet for telework and automation.