BCUC decision vindicates union stand on Hydro privatization

When the BC Utilities Commission ruled earlier this year that Terasen could walk away from its longstanding billing service agreement with Accenture, it was another nail in the coffin of the BC Liberals’ privatization plans for BC Hydro.
With BC Transmission Corp. now being reintegrated into BC Hydro and the BCUC once again shouldered aside to allow cabinet-level decision-making on energy policy, we’re pretty much back to 2001, with the exception of our new, “green” run-of-the-river independent power producers who now seem unlikely to be able to sell into California, which was always the goal.
In a recent Business in Vancouver column (June 25 – July 8 issue) I wrote about the union that has been at the centre of these developments:

When the BC Utilities Commission ruled in March that Terasen Gas could bring its customer service function back in-house, it proved that COPE 378, one of the province’s smaller unions, can punch well above its weight.
A critical factor behind the BCUC ruling was a new collective agreement hammered out between COPE (Canadian Office and Professional Employees) and Terasen that paved the way for the company to end its long-standing customer services contract with Accenture.
The result: more than 300 permanent unionized jobs, 600 temporary jobs and a $115 million investment in BC, including new call centres in the Lower Mainland and hard-pressed Prince George.
The victory was sweet for COPE 378 president Andy Ross, a full-time officer of the union since 1994 and president since 2005.
For most of his time in the union’s top office, Ross has crossed swords with the provincial government over its privatization programs at BC Hydro and ICBC. (Although COPE finds most of its 14,000 members in the two crown corporations, it also has members in a wide range of private sector certifications.)
Ross, who immigrated to Canada from the UK in 1981, is that rare union leader with private sector business experience as owner-operator of his own pub and bar in Newcastle.
Once in Canada, however, Ross became a Coast Mountain bus driver, working his way up to bus driver trainer and then into the union leadership.
Ross’ time at COPE’s helm has been dominated by the provincial government’s 2002 decision to contract out much of Hydro’s customer service work to Accenture, a project that quickly involved Terasen because of its shared joint billing system with Hydro.
COPE fought the privatization tooth and nail and then slugged it out with Accenture in collective bargaining. The former Terasen jobs melted away as Accenture shifted the work out of province.
By 2009 a frustrated Terasen told the BCUC that Accenture’s service had “fallen short of contractual standards.” When Terasen sought a way out of its deal with Accenture’s CustomerWorks LP, it found an ally in COPE 378.
CustomerWorks was paying penalties for its shortcomings, Terasen told the BCUC, but penalties and service failures “are not an acceptable business model going forward.”
A new agreement with COPE 378, negotiated quickly on deadlines required by the BCUC, gave Terasen the necessary relief and opened the door to a favourable BCUC ruling.
In a letter to the BCUC, Ross endorsed the Terasen proposal and the company’s declaration that the new contract “will provide the greatest flexibility for the company  . . . while providing cost certainty.”
Not only would the new arrangement add $25 million annually to provincial GDP, Ross claimed, it would make customer service a strategic asset for Terasen instead of a liability.
Ross believes the Terasen decision may mark a turning point in the union’s campaign to end Victoria’s fascination with outsourcing.
BC Hydro, still a major Accenture client, has begun its own repatriation program by bringing purchasing and procurement functions back in-house.
“If Hydro was left to its own decisions you wouldn’t see Accenture around,” Ross declares, “because they can’t deliver. No rational business in the world would use that business model.”
Will Ross be vindicated? Time will tell, but the Terasen episode should leave no doubt about his union’s willingness to close a deal when the conditions are right.