While Canada's three telecom titans lob advertisements onto newspapers and screens criticizing the Harper government's rules on foreign companies entering the communications sector, two of the country's largest unions are planning to take the summer's spectrum skirmish to the streets.
On Friday, the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) union and the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) will march in downtown Toronto against Ottawa's wireless incentives to attract new entrants — which increasingly seems to mean U.S. giant Verizon — to Canada's telecommunications market.
The government relaxed foreign ownership regulations in 2012, allowing non-Canadian firms to purchase Canadian companies with a market share of 10 per cent or less. It also limited the spectrum that Rogers, Bell and Telus could purchase. While the rules were originally intended to give a leg up to small new wireless companies, it appears Verizon could be the main beneficiary.
CEP President Dave Coles told the Huffington Post he doesn't see the rally as a defence of the Big Three, but as standing up for national jobs and security.
"We're offside with [Bell, Rogers and Telus] on all kinds of issues. We've had big strikes. This isn't an industrial relations issue, this is a nation-building issue. You can be on the same side yet disagree on all number of things, that's what a democracy is about," Coles said.
"They're quite unhappy with us when we talk about regulating or creating a crown corporation or being forced to invest in rural communities. We're not on the same page at all."
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Coles wrote a column in 2012 blasting Rogers' expenses on the Rogers Cup while technicians working for the company demanded better wages.
“Despite making more than $10 billion in profit over the past five years, Rogers has contracted out thousands of jobs in a bid to drive down wages and conditions," he wrote.
The CEP, which represents 110,000 members, also vehemently opposed the Bell-Astral deal, with its vice-president of media, Peter Murdoch, saying at a CRTC hearing that concentrated media ownership is responsible for "chilling diversity and neutering competition."
But Coles, whose union represents employees working for Bell and Rogers, disagrees with the idea of competition yielding lower prices, and believes there is enough competition in Canada as it is.
"If it was two carriers instead of the five or six I think it would be a problem," he said, acknowledging the fact that the Big Three own the lion's share of Canada's wireless revenue.
"I don't think that there is a lack of competition right now. They compete very hard against each other, and it isn't just three."
Still, if Verizon doesn't come to Canada, Coles said his union will continue to pressure the Big Three and demand conditions if they are allowed to purchase additional spectrum blocks.
"I don't think they should get a free ride," he said of the Big Three. "You and I own [Canada's wireless spectrum], it's not much different than anything that's in the ground, it belongs to the Canadian people," he said.
Friday's march at Yonge and Richmond streets in Toronto — which Coles forecasts will see 2,000 to 3,000 people in attendance "at least" — will take aim at the government's policy and its "spin" on foreign ownership rules, as well as its message of competition leading to lower rates for consumers.
"It is to bring attention to the total failure of the Harper Conservatives' Canadian telecommunications strategy," Coles said.
"There's nothing factual that is coming out of the Conservatives, particularly the prime minister's office, that has anything related to reality."
But on the other side of the spectrum (pun intended), Industry Minister James Moore and most recently Wind Mobile CEO Anthony Lacavera are saying the same about the Big Three's rhetoric.
Moore called the "Fair for Canada" campaign, aimed at stopping Verizon's yet-to-be-confirmed entry, "misleading" and "dishonest", while Lacavera released a lengthy blog Tuesday describing the Big Three's remarks as a "veritable all-you-can-eat buffet of misinformation."
"As the bombardment of advertisements from the Big Three continues, it’s important to recognize the noise for what it is: a desperate stand by the Big Three to protect their cozy and highly-profitable wireless market oligopoly," Lacavera wrote.
"No matter how loudly they protest, the reality is the government’s spirited pursuit of a more competitive market is in the best interest of all Canadians."
Moore, locked in a public tug-of-war with the three telecoms, is sticking to the government's goal of ensuring there are at least four major wireless carriers in all parts of Canada, but he told the Huffington Post that the rules would not be loosened any further.
“I just don’t think it would serve the Canadian industry,” Moore said. “I think it would upset a balance that I think we have achieved.”
Following the rally, the CEP and CAW will formally unite at a convention on Saturday and form Unifor, which will be the largest private-sector union in Canada.
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