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OP/ED: Truth in Training vs UnionSpeak

This op-ed by ICBA President Chris Gardner first appeared in The Province newspaper on Wednesday, May 29, 2019.

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. Decades after Mark Twain popularized this remark, the building trades unions in B.C. have breathed new life into his observation.

Only 15 per cent of B.C.’s 250,000 construction workers are affiliated with the traditional building trades unions. While the rest of the men and women in construction have moved onto more flexible models that give workers greater choice, better career options and participation in profit-sharing and bonus plans, the building trades cling to old-school hiring halls, rewarding seniority over skill, rigid rules and antiquated business practices that hurt workers and are financially unsustainable.

Desperate to turn back the clock and to justify to their members – and government – that they remain relevant, the building trades have adopted apprenticeship training as their last line of defence. Unfortunately for them, neither the facts nor the statistics back up their sanctimony.

Learning a skill and mastering a craft happens on the job working side-by-side with colleagues who have the experience and expertise to pass on to those following in their footsteps. What is learned in the classroom is enhanced and refined on the job.

It should then come as no surprise that the building trades train only 15% of the construction workforce – that’s the percentage of the workforce they represent. The remaining 85% of construction workers who are members of employee associations and progressive unions or who work for construction companies not affiliated with the building trades unions are trained in classrooms by instructors and on the job by their colleagues, just like their building trades counterparts.

In fact, statistics obtained from the Industry Training Authority (ITA) through a Freedom of Information request shows that 23,172 of the province’s 28,432 registered construction apprentices are not affiliated with any union. That means 81.5 per cent of construction apprentices are not sponsored by the building trades or any other union, including progressive ones like CLAC.

The vast majority of apprenticeship sponsorship in this province is done by Independent Contractors and Businesses Association (ICBA) and open shop companies – not the traditional building trades unions. It’s not even close.

That ICBA sponsors more construction apprentices than any other entity in B.C. is an ever-present uncomfortable reality for unions who collect millions in “training” funds from their workers.

In a recent op-ed, building trades union president Tom Sigurdson tried to downplay ICBA’s number of apprentices by cherry-picking a stat claiming that “there are more than 1,300 registered apprentices in just two of our union trade schools alone: the Electrical Joint Training Committee and the Piping Industry College.”

But the ITA’s numbers show that ICBA and non-union companies have thousands more apprentices in those trades. Combined, ICBA and non-union companies sponsor 10,329 construction and industrial electrician, plumber, sprinkler fitter, steamfitter-pipefitter and welder apprentices. The unions train 2,073. That’s a margin of 5 to 1 for the open shop.

And we’re not certain those union-trained apprentices are even staying in B.C. The Piping Industry College is advertising a program to certify Canadian union plumbers to work (and move to) New Zealand. That’s right: the same unions who claim B.C. has a huge worker shortage and constantly fear-monger about foreign workers taking jobs from British Columbians is shipping B.C.-trained plumbers halfway around the world. And it’s not just plumbers – the first group of B.C. union electricians started working in New Zealand in March.

All of this makes the NDP Government’s move to building trades union-only monopolies on major taxpayer-funded projects so offensive. By forcing all workers on the Pattullo Bridge to join a building trades union and to become an employee of a new crown corporation is a sop to the building trades unions who happened to have donated $2.5 million to the NDP over the past few elections.

Money talks, folks. This gift to the friends and insiders of the NDP Government is not about training or hiring more young people or providing more opportunities for women – indeed, the statistics prove non-union apprenticeship is thriving. It’s money at the heart of one of the most offensive backroom deals to come out of Victoria in decades.

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