Don't Strike Out in Labor Disputes
Print Issue: July 2008
WHEN UNION WORKERS GO ON STRIKE against a company, the targeted business must be prepared to deal with a panoply of issues—not only the obvious operational interruptions. For example, facilities may need protection against sabotage, and any management or front-line employees who cross the picket line may suffer physical injuries and mental trauma comparable to what might result from being in a severe natural disaster. The difference between a strike and a powerful storm, however, is that the latter lasts for a short time, then is gone. Strikes, on the other hand, can last months, pounding a business each succeeding day with the same intensity. Surviving a strike depends on long-range, specific security-focused continuity planning. Merely adapting an existing continuity plan to the circumstance is not sufficient.
The importance of strike planning is illustrated in the experience of Telus, which faced a work stoppage in April of 2005. Fortunately, the security department had made sure that the company was prepared.
Telus is the second largest telecommunications company in Canada, with more than 10.3 million customer connections and approximately 22 percent of that nation’s market share. The company provides a range of data, IP, voice, entertainment, and video services, which generate approximately C$9 billion in revenue. It employs about 34,000 people at its headquarters in Vancouver, British Columbia, and operates facilities across several Canadian provinces.
Gene McLean, now retired from his post as chief security officer of Telus, joined the company in August 2001, just a few weeks before 9-11. “It was precipitous timing. One of the first things I looked into was security continuity planning,” he says. McLean found that while the company’s plan did address man made incidents, strikes were not among the specific situations considered.
Although work stoppages are rare—only a small percentage of union contracts negotiations in the United States or Canada result in strikes each year—McLean was aware that in the 1990s there had been unionized-worker strikes against Telus. He also knew that a new contract for the Telecommunications Workers Union (TWU), which is comprised of telecommunications technicians and others working for telephone and cable companies, was in negotiation. Even if the new contract sailed through, McLean’s view was that it was only a question of time before another union-organized work stoppage occurred.
“Sometimes these things go on and on, and then at the thirteenth hour, union and management sign and a strike is averted—and we’ve seen that in the past, certainly, but my thinking was to plan for the worst and hope for the best,” he says. “If it didn’t happen, then great—but if it did, there was a plan in place.”
Given that a union walkout would mean the temporary loss of thousands of employees at multiple facilities across many different provinces, McLean knew that Telus’s approximately 100-person corporate security department would not be able to handle a strike without outside assistance.
“It was clear that there would need to be additional resources,” he states. It was also vital that any guard force hired by Telus to serve during a work stoppage not leave a lasting negative legacy. “It is important that nobody gets hurt and that everyone comes back, and we work together,” McLean says.
In 2002, McLean and his team began looking at options—and they wanted more than the ability to contract extra guards at a moment’s notice. To that end, McLean sought out companies in Canada that offered security guards as well as a range of supervisory, protective, documentary, and investigative services for the duration of a strike. Four such providers were identified.
McLean arranged preliminary meetings with representatives from each provider. He was also looking for a provider “that understood our plan, had a plan of its own to integrate with ours, and that would be able to operate on their own versus needing to be micromanaged. I was looking for leadership capability.”
AFI International Group, Inc., was selected because the due diligence performed by McLean and his team found that AFI had a uniformly positive track record since its inception in 1986. In its years of operation, the Milton, Ontario-based company had assisted more than 1,000 clients of all sizes, including many Fortune 500 corporations. Moreover, none of the company’s security personnel had ever been charged with violating any laws while assigned to a facility under a strike, despite accusations in complaints filed by the unions.
“It’s a common tactic from unionized organizations to, at the start of a strike, immediately file a complaint with the local governing body saying that [a contractor like AFI] is not a licensed agency, that their guards don’t wear uniforms, and that they use unlicensed people,” says Hratch Jabrayan, vice president of operations and security services for the company. These complaints trigger time-consuming site visits by law enforcement to review the company’s licenses, audit its insurance, and ensure that the guards are wearing the proper uniforms required under Canadian law.
Authorities also have to make sure that both the guards and the investigators are carrying badges provided by the province’s governing ministry. There is a C$50,000 fine for a violation. Three violations result in a shutdown.
With the provider selected, McLean set about working with the company to develop a strike contingency plan tailored to Telus. Although the planning itself was completed in a short period of time, the ongoing contract negotiations with the union dragged on for the next few years, ending neither in a strike nor in a settlement. The finished plans would remain ready to roll out if and when the strike was called.
The first step in the planning process was to assess Telus’s existing contingency plans. The AFI and Telus team sought to determine exactly how to mesh AFI’s strike plans and resources with the existing Telus contingency program.
To understand the company’s expectations, the team explored issues such as business continuity. For example, during a strike, did Telus expect customer services to continue as usual? The answer was that it did, so the next step in the process was to determine the extent of the resources needed to ensure the desired outcome.
To that end, the customer impact of previous work-stoppages was explored, and all current processes by which Telus interacted with its customers were broken down. The team also considered how long customer-service functions could be disrupted without a critical revenue loss and long-term loss of customers to other telecommunications providers.
Additionally, AFI field coordinators and regional managers visited all Telus locations in Toronto and across Western Canada. During the audits, AFI assessed lighting, camera systems, access and egress, proximity to roadways and highways, and whether the property was owned by Telus or leased; the objective was to determine whether supplemental physical security or equipment was likely to be needed during a strike. They also looked at the nature of property surrounding the facility to determine whether it would be legal or illegal for protestors to position themselves there.
During the audits, computerized drawings and satellite images of the properties were also generated or obtained. These would be used to plan the placement of security officers, says Jabrayan.
In addition, AFI personnel made contact with local police. “We introduce ourselves and advise the police that we have been retained by a client who might be faced with a labor disruption,” Jabrayan says, adding that law enforcement appreciates the notification.
Meanwhile, as part of the planning, human resource issues were probed for their potential financial, physical, and mental impact on strikers both during and after the work stoppage. For instance, they determined whether the strikers’ employee benefits would be halted if the strike dragged on and whether the HR department had a back-to-work plan in place for the immediate period after the strike or for workers deciding to cross the picket line after a period of striking but before the strike was over.
Public relations plans were also reviewed to make sure that media relations would be properly handled. Noting that unions are skilled at presenting their message to media quickly, efficiently, and effectively, the company had to be equally ready to put forth its own case to minimize the damage the strike might cause to its reputation. Bad press surrounding a strike can cause the loss of both current and future customers.
Personnel. As a result of this research and discussion, a final plan was drawn up describing what personnel AFI would provide and how they would be deployed.
AFI has several types of personnel that it can provide at strike sites to ensure that the plan objectives are achieved. Among the personnel are senior project coordinators, investigators, and security officers at each affected site, as well as executive protection teams for Telus’s top executives.
Project coordinators. Senior project coordinators oversee the deployment of AFI personnel and resources. As soon as a strike seemed at hand or was declared, McLean would notify Jabrayan, the senior project coordinator for the Telus strike. Jabrayan would then activate the agreedto strike support. As detailed ahead, Jabrayan had been in Vancouver—the site of Telus headquarters—for some weeks when the strike finally occurred.
All AFI senior project coordinators, like Jabrayan, work their way up through the company, having served as security officers with AFI, then investigators, then coordinators, and finally senior project coordinators. Reporting to Jabrayan were coordinators assigned to the various strike locations.
Investigators. The Telus plan stipulated that investigators be stationed at each affected site to record any incidents of violence or intimidation, picket-line crossings, or other critical events. Appropriate governing bodies in each province license these investigators after they receive training on privacy issues, proper documentary procedures, and affidavit preparation. Investigators never intervene, though they may notify law enforcement if they see someone being hurt or property being damaged. The evidence the investigators collect is presented to police or to clients’ lawyers necessary.
Security officers. In the event of a strike, the plan called for AFI to place about 300 of its uniformed officers at various strike sites. All of the AFI officers must pass a seven-tier training course taught by certified instructors. Training covers topics such as introduction to private security, legal rights and responsibilities, patrol procedures, crowd control, labor disputes and public relations, and fire safety. Other topics include tactical communications, professionalism and ethics, relations with law enforcement agencies, discrimination, stereotyping, report writing, evidence collection and documentation, bomb threats, lock-down procedures, and use of force.
The governments of Ontario, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Newfoundland have approved this regimen, which is respected around the country, says McLean.
Executive protection. Telus and AFI agreed that the telecom company’s top six executives and some members of their families would receive executive protection. AFI maintains its own executive protection division. “These are highly trained AFI personnel who specialize in executive protection—that’s all they do,” Jabrayan states.
“Telus has six senior executives who are public figures in Western Canada,” says McLean. These executives, who were also the point people on the Telus side of the negotiations, were perceived as those with the power to avert or trigger the strike, and for that reason, they were selected for protection.
Command centers. The plan called for AFI command centers to be set up in Calgary, Vancouver, and Edmonton. The centers would work in conjunction with Telus’s own internal security command centers. “Everything [would be] approved with the client via daily communication,” Jabrayan states.
Once a strike was underway and AFI investigators were stationed at sites to observe events, all documentation and evidence collected by the investigators would be delivered to evidence handlers stationed in the command centers. All evidence would be logged, numbered, and put in secure storage.
Escalation. The plan itself would unfold in steps, as ordered by McLean. First, executive protection would be activated, if needed. Next, AFI personnel who had been assigned to the Telus strike would be placed on standby in eight cities at prearranged off-site locations within a 10-minute driving distance of strike locations. When a strike was officially declared, the agreed-on personnel would take up their assigned duties. Finally, when the strike ended, personnel would be withdrawn based on the need assessed at the time.
Not a Drill
During the wait between the completion of the planning in 2002 and the strike in 2005, updated information was regularly provided to AFI on the current status of negotiations between the telecom giant and the TWU. As talks dragged on, TWU members worked without a contract, says McLean, but the union “made it clear that they had successfully struck in the past, and they were not the least bit afraid of having a strike again.”
Then, on April 17, 2005, it appeared to Telus negotiators that the two sides were heading toward an impasse. That day, says Jabrayan, he received a call from McLean that authorized AFI to immediately implement the initial step of the labor dispute contingency plan, which was to provide executive protection for the company’s most senior executives. By the afternoon of April 18, those named in the plan were in the care of AFI’s protection specialists. Jabrayan had also flown to Vancouver to oversee the operation.
McLean remained in constant communication with Jabrayan during the month that followed, as talks again sputtered and failed. On May 14, with the strike again looming, McLean ordered AFI to take the next step in the plan by placing personnel at off-site locations. But again, the contract talks restarted. “For the next three months, we kept these personnel on standby. If needed, they were available,” Jabrayan says.
McLean and Jabrayan were in regular contact via phone and e-mail. In early July, “We had an idea that we were getting close to the strike when negotiations broke down, and no further talks were scheduled. Just after midnight on July 22, the union announced the strike, and picket lines went up.
“Because we were ready, because we had planned, and because we had so many people in place, within 10 minutes, we had all Telus locations covered with security and investigative personnel,” Jabrayan states.
By July 23, approximately 15,000 employees officially were off the job in 17 cities, although McLean says that some of the union employees chose to cross the picket lines to come to work throughout the strike. AFI security officers were on hand to make sure that TWU workers who chose to cross the picket lines, as well as all of the nonunion employees, could safely enter their workplaces. Investigators documented any threats or other acts of intimidation. McLean says that he was pleased by the skill of the AFI investigators and evidence handlers.
“Evidence gathering is absolutely key to a successful operation, and AFI did that in spades. In fact, it was done in a sophisticated, open manner; the exhibits and evidence were handled as police would handle it. There was a very strong chain of evidence in place. That information was presented to legal and labor relations and was actioned accordingly,” McLean explains, adding that “without the gathering done in a proper, correct manner, all of that would be challenged in court.”
At the height of the strike, about 415 AFI personnel were working at strike locations, in command centers, on executive protection teams, and in other circumstances. Everyone performed “in a pleasant, firm, professional manner,” McLean notes. Referring to nefarious strikebreaking practices of old, McLean insists that Telus has a “whole different sort of philosophy” that respects “a legal strike that occurs after a democratic process of negotiation.”
The picket lines, while not violent, were “raucous with bad language and people crossing the picket lines being called all sorts of names. Some of that was to get a reaction from the security guards, but they didn’t rise to any of the bait,” McLean says.
Picketers had to stay a certain distance away, and that was explained to them regularly. “The communication [by officers] from first day on was assertive, setting out where picketing was allowed and where it wasn’t; the type of property they couldn’t be on or could be,” he says. But the approach was not dictatorial. “There was give and take and a mature discussion going on both sides,” says McLean.
The strike continued for a considerable amount of time. As days turned into weeks, both picketers and security put in long hours. By about week two, however, McLean says that both security and strikers had settled into their roles and affected a professional interface. “Very quickly, the senior picketers and security started to make contacts between themselves and exchange information in a respectful manner. It worked to the benefit of both sides,” he relates.
Generally speaking, says Jabrayan, AFI has found that during labor disputes, violence or other bad behavior can be caused by other unions whose members come to support the strikers. In the case of Telus, no such violence occurred, and McLean attributes that to the control exerted by AFI’s planning and personnel presence, stating: “We had various unions at sites across the country show up in support, but we didn’t have any issues at the sites, because of the proactive [planning] that had been done.”
“We believe that in a labor dispute, the planning does often mitigate the violence. It’s hard to put a tangible measure on that, but it does seem that the better and earlier the planning, the less violence and disruptions,” says AFI COO Peter Martin.
Part of that contingency planning was close coordination with emergency services and officers trained in CPR and first aid. “If someone on the picket line collapsed, [officers] could step in and help,” says Jabrayan. “That was all part of the plan—if anyone suffered in any way, they stepped in immediately.”
While the picketed Telus facilities remained free of violence, there were several possibly related issues at other sites, including a bomb scare at a Telus store in a large shopping mall in Burnaby, British Columbia, TWU members refusing to allow a Telus repair truck onto Gabriola Island, British Columbia, and reports of phone and data lines cut in Vancouver.
It was not until September 26 that talks between the company and the TWU resumed. A tentative agreement was reached on October 10, and the picket lines rolled up, although member ratification of the new contract was not finalized until mid November.
After the strike, says McLean, “The people from the various business units came back in waves of about 1,000 or so per day. They got back to their old roles and jobs, picked up where they left off, and life continued on.”
Because the strike had ended in a new contract and because security never disrespected any of the workers or others walking the picket line, McLean says, there was little lasting anger. “The beauty of the democratic process was that they voted and accepted the settlement, then they came back to work.…That was always the goal—to arrive at a settlement, keep our work force in place, agree to a contract, come back to work, and be happy,” he states.
AFI decreased its numbers gradually. “We started the ramp down on October 14, and the process ended on October 24. By October 27, we had eliminated all labor-dispute related coverage for Telus across Canada except for the executive protection, which continued because after every labor dispute, there are always a few people who remain unhappy and decide to do something irresponsible,” says Jabrayan. The protection was kept in place for a few months, then quietly ended.
Postmortem. In the aftermath, Telus security and AFI held postmortem meetings. The only concerns raised that McLean can recall pertained to administrative issues common to any large-scale operation: “The recording of who is doing what when and where,” he explains.
Generally, McLean relates, it was agreed by all that “good plans were in place. They weren’t thrown away in the first week... and there were no surprises. Expectations were clearly defined in [planning] before the strike, and as a result, during the strike, there was no disappointment on my end.”
While not commenting on the specific cost of the operation, McLean says that it was worth the expenditure. He advises other companies facing union negotiations to similarly hope for the best but plan for the worst.
Ann Longmore-Etheridge is an associate editor of Security Management.