May 2011

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Federal Elections 2011: Activists Keep Spotlight on Jobs

Canadians went to polls for the fourth time in seven years this month in an election that decided the future of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper's minority government.

The opposition Liberals and New Democrats—along with the Bloc Québécois—toppled Harper's government in a vote of no-confidence March 25, holding his government in contempt of Parliament for failing to disclose financial details behind some of its recent budgetary moves.

While final results were not available before press time, it was a high-stakes election, particularly for the construction industry, where many key legislative issues remain in the air.

Canada has largely recovered from the 2008 recession and industry is booming in many parts of the country, but the future growth of good jobs will depend in large part upon the continuing intervention of the federal government, says Christopher Smillie, senior advisor for government relations and public affairs at the Canadian Building Trades.

"We called on all the parties to lay out their plans to keep our economy on track and put Canadians to work," he says.

While stricter federal campaign laws passed in 2006 limit the ability of labour unions to campaign for particular candidates or parties, the building trades mobilized members across Canada to lobby candidates on the key issues that affect working families, setting a pro-worker agenda at the federal level that can cross party lines.

"We're staying connected with all the parties," Smillie says. "We are sticking with the issues and working to move MPs on them."

Topping the policy priority list is the energy industry. Canada's natural resource base, in particular the Alberta oil sands region, has been vital to the country's economic health and the building trades are pushing for the government to continue investing in this key economic sector.

"Sales of oil and gas have kept our economy growing, and we want to make sure the parties commit to developing a tax code and regulatory climate that will make more energy projects—and good jobs—happen," says IBEW First District Vice President Phil Flemming.

Matching workers to these jobs is another priority. Canada is facing a skilled worker shortage as more baby boomers exit the work force. The Construction Sector Council says 317,000 new skilled workers will be needed by 2017 to meet Canada's manpower needs.

The building trades wants more federal grants to help provinces fund apprenticeship training and is pushing government officials and contractors to include apprenticeship training as part of any major construction project.

"Bringing in temporary overseas workers to fill in the gaps won't cut it," Smillie says. "We need to get serious about getting more Canadian youths into the skilled trades."

Labour mobility has become an issue for many construction workers, as oil sands' recruiters scour the country for skilled tradespeople.

Making the Red Seal standard the qualifying benchmark for skilled construction employment in every province and allowing travel to and from projects to be tax deductible would make it easier for workers to get to where the jobs are.

And while the job picture is looking up in construction, Canadian manufacturing continues to take a beating.

"Canada needs an industrial strategy and governments must continue with economic stimulus measures that have saved us from sinking into recession," says Canadian Labour Congress President Ken Georgetti in a statement.

Smillie helped produce an electronic election newsletter for activists, along with developing political action kits to help members talk to their candidates about the major issues.

Regardless of the results, Flemming says it's up to every member to remain mobilized beyond Election Day.

"We need to keep writing our MPs, talking to party leaders and making our voices heard, because it is up to us to make sure the issues of importance to working people are part of the national debate in Ottawa," Flemming says.