The Long Distance Feeling: A History of the Telecommunications Workers Union
Contains Illustrations, Index
Allen Seager taught in the Department of History at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby.
Elaine Bernard, a Vancouver labour educator, has produced a remarkable survey of labour-management relations in British Columbia’s telecommunications industry. This is a work that goes well beyond its mandate: a commissioned history of the province’s Telecommunications Workers Union. The TWU (formerly the Federation of Telephone Workers of British Columbia) gained national prominence when, in February 1981, its 12,000 members effected a week-long occupation of the facilities of the American-owned B.C. Telephone corporation, and inquiring subscribers were greeted by cheerful operators with the message, “BC Tel, under workers’ control.” The strike and lockout which precipitated this event would later culminate in the first of several regional general sympathy strikes authorized by the provincial labour federation; the strike and lockout were thus a major step in the escalating tensions between organized labour, employers, and the state which characterized B.C.’s industrial-relations scene in the early 1980s. But as Bernard ably demonstrates, the occupation was part of an historically rooted pattern of workplace relations which have seen over the last century the progressive alienation — “the long distance feeling” — and collective mobilization of the variegated labour force at “BC Tel” (craft workers, operators, and clerical employees) into a militant trade union.
Integral to this process, argues the author, has been the negative impact of technological change on the quality of work life in a rapidly modernizing industry. More comparative studies, however, are needed before this impact can be precisely detailed. The radical traditions of the various organizations which have functioned in B.C’s telephone industry, notably the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 213, under whose socialist leadership the “hello girls” of the pre-automation era were placed “in a class by themselves amongst women workers in this province” by their enthusiastic response to the 1919 General Strike (p.61), are worth emphasizing. BC Tel, whose private monopoly was assured by 1925, has traditionally been and remains committed to a management style whose only priority is maximizing yearly dividends. Lastly, British Columbia political leaders, alone among their western provincial counterparts, have resisted with peculiar zeal any suggestion that the industry be put under public ownership. Appropriately, The Long Distance Feeling concludes by outlining a practical proposal for bringing to an end the vicious cycle of confrontation, resistance, and reprisals at the firm: nationalization under worker co-management.