Labour Day usually results in a host of self-congratulatory press releases from unions trumpeting their importance in ensuring Canadians do not toil away in factories reminiscent of the London of Charles Dickens. Rather than debate whether that would be the reality without unions, most Canadians are happy to give labour its day and spend a long weekend at the cottage.
However, when overstated union claims of their importance start to impact public policy and the economy, then it is time for Canadians to take notice.
One such example lies buried in the 2016 Federal Budget, which promised $85.4 million over five years to support union-based apprenticeship training. While investments in apprenticeship training are critical to address the looming labour shortages in the construction sector, this particular investment completely ignores current employment realities.
The issue is simple: other than Quebec, the vast majority of employment in construction is in the open shop sector, wherein union membership is not a condition of employment. For example, in Saskatchewan 15% of the construction workforce is unionized versus 85% in the open shop sector. In Alberta, fewer than 20% of the construction workforce is represented by a building trades union. In New Brunswick, over 75% of the workforce is open shop. These figures are consistent across the country, yet the Federal Government has chosen to give union training centres $85.4 million.
This move could topple Canada’s entire apprenticeship system, which has been working well for decades. No open shop employer is going to send an employee to a union training centre since those facilities are de facto recruitment centres that include union organization in the training curriculum. Without employers, the bulk of whom are in the open shop sector, there is nowhere for apprentices to work. The warning signs for a potential boondoggle quickly become apparent.
This move by Ottawa also undermines the existing apprenticeship training system, which involves cooperation between employers, provincial government bodies, colleges and training institutes. Furthermore, in provinces like Alberta and Saskatchewan, apprentice training is 80% on the job and 20% in the classroom, which makes sense since workers learn more on a job site. To put that another way, on your next flight do you want a pilot who has learned to fly in a cockpit or one who watched videos about it in a classroom?
Why then would the Federal Government seek to undermine this system by a) putting apprentices back in the classroom in union training centres and b) effectively shutting out 75-80% of the skilled trade work force in the non-union sector from apprenticeship training?
The answer has nothing to do with meeting the needs of Canada’s construction industry, which will have to attract at least 320,000 workers or face serious shortages in the labour supply in the next decade. As usual, it is instead strictly a matter of politics and unions trying to reverse their decades’ long decline in union membership.
In part to mitigate their loss in worker market share, building trade unions have built lavish training centres and now seek to operate them with public funds, while indenturing apprentices to their organizations.
However, that cannot hide the fact that the introduction of union-based training would benefit only a very small percentage of both employees and employers. Using so much public money to support such a small portion of the industry is not fiscally prudent or responsible. It speaks more to ideology and political favours than any serious consideration of labour force needs and the economy as a whole.
Worker training should not be used as an excuse to create slush funds for union recruitment. The reality in Canada’s construction sector is that upwards of 80% of the workforce is not unionized. Union lobbying for funds for their training centres should be seen for what it really is: an attempt to change that reality. Under their logic, put money into the union training centres and unions gain a stranglehold over the apprenticeship system, which in turn boosts their membership numbers.
Spending millions of taxpayer dollars to aid union recruitment efforts is not sound labour market development policy. If the concern is really to ensure the Canadian economy meets its looming skilled labour needs, then policy decisions should reflect market realities, not political agendas. Even on Labour Day.