Justin Trudeau used a fitting backdrop to pledge support for one of Canadian labor's highest priorities.
It was during a town hall hosted by the prime minister on March 1 at Vancouver Local 213's training center in front of members and apprentices, along with leaders from the IBEW's First District.
"I have made a commitment, and I am going to hold to that commitment, that we are going to introduce anti-scab legislation [in the House of Commons] before the end of this year," said Trudeau, who immediately received a round of applause.
|Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses the crowd during a town hall at Vancouver, British Columbia, Local 213’s training center in March.
|The audience for Prime Minister Trudeau’s town hall included Local 213 members, apprentices and staff along with media from across Canada.
|Trudeau visits with Farid Poursoltani, business development director for Local 213’s training center, before the town hall. Matt Wayland, the IBEW’s director of governmental relations in Canada, and Canadian Minister pf Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Carla Qualtrough look on.
The time appears right. The ruling Liberals have a minority government but have formed a relationship with the New Democratic Party to pass worker-friendly pieces of legislation.
The pledge came on a big day for Local 213, a leader in expanding workers' rights not just in the IBEW but in all of Canada.
"When the government says it wants to come and talk to you, we're going to open our door," Business Manager Jim Lofty said. "The timing was perfect, to be able to talk to the prime minister and tell him our story."
Farid Poursoltani, the training center's director of business development, oversaw the event's setup after the prime minister's office informed Local 213 that it wanted to hold an event there. He was impressed that Trudeau took about 10 minutes to speak with him, Lofty and other Local 213 officials.
"He's just a very charismatic guy and very supportive of union training and workforce development," Poursoltani said.
Legislation to ban replacement workers in federally regulated industries has been discussed for years, with Local 213 serving as leader in the effort. The local has sent members to Parliament in Ottawa, including as recently as February, to lobby for the change.
But it came to the forefront again recently in a big way.
About 240 employees of the Ledcor Group, a construction company based in Vancouver, voted in 2017 for Local 213 representation. But Ledcor stretched out negotiations for a first contract and the employees eventually went on a three-year strike, during which the company replaced them with workers who crossed picket lines.
Local 213 eventually won the battle. The Canadian Industrial Relations Board ruled the company did not negotiate in good faith and, for just the seventh time in the country's history, instituted a first contract itself.
Still, the long strike taxed Local 213's finances — and, even more importantly, the financial and mental health of the striking workers.
Trudeau's comments at the local were his most definitive yet on the subject.
"It is the middle class that has built this country in every possible way," said Trudeau, who was accompanied by Carla Qualtrough, Canada's minister of employment, workforce development and disability inclusion. "It is organized labor and unions who have been at the center of fighting for a stronger middle class for this country forever."
Lofty was pleased to hear the prime minister's comments and expects a bill to be passed by Parliament. But he'll hold off on celebrating until he reads the final version.
"They could pass something that creates a lot of different loopholes and isn't necessarily an effective piece of legislation," he said. "We need legislation with teeth."
For instance, if companies aren't required to pay stiff penalties for not following the law, some might choose to ignore it — something U.S.-based unions have had to battle against.
Trudeau said the federal government remains committed to the Union Training and Innovation Program, commonly called UTIP, which provides CA$25 million annually to the trades in support of apprenticeship training with the goal of making it more accessible to historically underserved groups, such as women, minorities and the Indigenous population.
Trudeau praised Local 213 for its work in attracting people from those groups, adding that reaching out to underrepresented communities can address the shortage of skilled construction workers in Canada.
Meeting that challenge remains a priority. Trudeau said the country's goal of moving to a net-zero electrical grid by 2035 isn't being done just to address climate change. Increasingly, investors in Canada are calling for clean energy to be used on their projects, he said.
"As Canada continues to make bold moves to tackle climate change and substantially increase our clean tech and clean energy sectors to meet our electricity needs, Prime Minister Trudeau and his government know that they can count on the highly skilled sisters and brothers of the IBEW to do that work, not only across the country but throughout North America," First District International Vice President Russ Shewchuk said.
Poursoltani said federal funding has helped the training center increase the number of women in apprenticeship programs from 2% to 13% and the number of Indigenous people enrolled from 2% to 14%.
He thanked Trudeau for the commitment, but he also urged him to increase funding so training centers can expand their physical size. That will allow the IBEW and other trades to accept more apprentices and better address the skilled worker shortage.
"We need that brick and mortar," he said.
The Liberals have had a good relationship with most unions since coming to power in 2015. The IBEW in Canada regularly is included in discussions on important issues with Trudeau's advisors and cabinet ministers, and sometimes with the prime minister himself. He visited Edmonton, Alberta, Local 424 in 2016, not long after being elected.
He noted during his Local 213 visit that one of the first things the Liberals did when taking power was to repeal legislation passed during the 10 years of Conservative-led government designed to punish unions. That led to onerous, redundant financial reporting requirements and made it harder for Canadians in federally regulated workplaces to join a union.
"It wasn't about doing the right thing for people that supported us," Trudeau said. "It was making sure that unions and organized labor are seen as absolutely foundational partners in the success of this country."
Trudeau answered questions for nearly 90 minutes — and not surprisingly, IBEW members and officials challenged him at times.
Theresa Davidson, the training center's entry-level trades training coordinator, asked Trudeau why the federal government is changing a program that provides financial incentives to underrepresented groups entering the trades.
The program provided eligible female apprentices CA$8,000 annually. That was cut to CA$4,000 on March 31.
Davidson said she got her picture taken with Trudeau afterward.
"When he got to me, he said: 'I heard your questions. I'm going to look into them for you,'"she said.