United Steelworkers, Telecom Workers unions to merge

The United Steelworkers and the Telecommunications Workers Union have reached a tentative agreement to merge.

Newly united groups join campaign against Verizon in the wireless market

United Steelworkers national president Leo Gerard, right, says the merger will give members of the Telecommunications Workers Union a stronger voice globally. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

The United Steelworkers and the Telecommunications Workers Union have reached a tentative agreement to merge.

The unions announced Thursday that they will be following in the footsteps of two other large unions that joined forces earlier this summer. The Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP) will make their merger official this weekend. The merged union, named Unifor, will be Canada's largest private sector union, with more than 300,000 members.

The Telecommunications Workers Union represents employees at Telus, Shaw Communications and other telecommunications companies. (TWU)

The United Steelworkers union represents 225,000 workers across several industries while the TWU has 13,000 members who work for Shaw Communications, Telus and other telecommunications companies.

The tentative agreement still has to be ratified by the unions' membership but USW international president Leo Gerard says the merger will benefit TWU members.

"Because Telus and other telecommunication companies have operations around the world, our work as a merged union will multiply across borders," Gerard said in a press release. "The TWU will have immediate access to our union's proven capacity to deal with employers on a global basis."

Merger will give TWU 'better bargaining power'

The TWU said a merged union will put its members on firmer footing domestically at a time when Canada's telecommunications industry is in flux.

"This is a merger about better bargaining power, about better service to members and about a strong voice for telecommunication workers when the federal government is making moves like its misguided Verizon scheme," said TWU national president Lee Riggs.

Canada's telecommunications sector has been abuzz recently with talk of a possible entry into the Canadian market by U.S. telecom giant Verizon. The large telecom companies like Telus, Bell and Rogers and the unions representing workers at those companies have all spoken against allowing Verizon to enter the market.

The large telcos have argued that the government's upcoming spectrum auction favours the U.S. company and puts incumbents at a disadvantage while the unions say Verizon's entry into Canada would cost jobs and expose Canadians' data to possible scrutiny by U.S. security agencies — after reports that Verizon co-operated with the National Security Agency in the U.S.

Thousands of CAW and CEP members turned out for a march organized by the unions in Toronto on Friday to urge the government to change the rules over allowing foreign players into the Canadian wireless market.

Union members held up red signs that read "Say no to Verizon", blocking the intersection in front of the Toronto office of Industry Canada.

Ken Lewenza, former head of the Canadian Autoworkers Union, said his first choice would be for the government not to allow foreign companies such as Verizon, into the market.

"But if you are going to allow foreign investors in to a key essential service to the Canadian economy, then it's got to to be under the same rules as the Canadian companies that built the initial programs many years ago. So it's about levelling the playing field," he said.

 That's the same message coming from Canada's Big three telco firms —Bell, Rogers and Telus. They're upset that they can't compete in an auction of extra bandwidth space for cellphone providers and have taken out ads saying Ottawa’s rules are unfair.

Verizon is four times the size of the big three, and it may not even enter the Canadian market now it is looking at buying back its own stock from Vodafone.

"There's a good reason Bell, Rogers and Telus are nervous. This is a giant looking to come into the Canadian marketplace," Gregory Taylor, a telecom analyst at Ryerson University told CBC News.

But Ottawa is winning the PR game by promising consumers more competition if Verizon enters the market, he said.

"They realize it plays well politically. And so the polls are showing this is working in the governmnent's favour right now. And Canasdians seem to be enjoying watching the big three squirm a little bit."