Toronto Local 353 Business Manager Steven Martin isn’t just dismayed the Legislative Assembly of Ontario may pass a measure that could compromise public safety and harm the livelihood of trade unionists.

First District Vice President William F. Daniels, second from left, and John Grimshaw, secretary and treasurer of the IBEW Construction Council of Ontario, greet supporters before a rally at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Nov. 30.

He’s equally upset that it’s being pushed by the majority Liberal Party and Premier Kathleen Wynne, whom the IBEW once saw as political allies.

“We were quite hopeful the government would have taken it seriously when we told them this needed more study and told us, ‘We need to sit down and have a consultation with the trades on this,’” Martin said. “They didn’t do that.”

At issue is Schedule 17 of Omnibus Budget Bill 70, which would give the government-run Ontario Labour Relations Board sweeping powers over compulsory and non-compulsory trades, taking them away from the industry-run Ontario College of Trades.

IBEW leaders and members fear it will undercut the value of apprenticeship. It also would take work away from IBEW members and others skilled in the trades because unlicensed workers likely would command lower wages.

“It will make my apprenticeship useless because anyone will be able to do my trade,” said Sam Lapierre, an apprentice at Ottawa Local 586, in an interview with the CBC.

A rally on Nov. 30 at Queen’s Park in Toronto just outside the provincial legislative building drew about 4,500 people, many of them IBEW members, who learned about the it less than one week earlier. They carried signs that read “Wynne: Stop Attacking Skilled Trades” and “Public Safety Over Corporate Profits.”

“I was pleased to see the turnout considering the short notice,” First District Vice President William F. Daniels said. “It’s something that came together fast and let’s face it, the trades recognize that this is a real attack on our way of living.”

John Grimshaw, secretary/treasurer of the IBEW Construction Council of Ontario, said the College of Trades sends inspectors to jobsites to assure licensed workers are doing the work in areas that require compulsory certification. If the worker or the contractor receives a citation, they can appeal it to the provincial courts.

Schedule 17 would send those decisions to the labour board instead and take the college out of it, Grimshaw said. It also would open areas for non-licensed workers to work in that previously required compulsory certification.

“This is not a labour-relations matter,” Grimshaw said. “It affects everybody. It’s the integrity of the trades.”

Or, as Martin put it: “You don’t hire a jack-of-all-trades guy to install a fire alarm in a public building. You hire someone that has been trained to do it. It’s a public safety issue.”

“We [Local 353] spend 9,000 hours in our apprenticeship programs teaching our craft,” Martin added.  “We are the largest trainer of apprentices in Canada. The next step here by the government is to deregulate the trades and get rid of the apprenticeships.”

The IBEW and other trade unions knew such a proposal was possible after the release in November 2015 of the Dean Report, which recommended that when two or more trades are allowed to do the same work, employers can hire anyone to do it, not just compulsory certified trade workers. 

What they didn’t expect was Wynne and other Liberal politicians to attach it last month to the provincial budget bill, which is almost guaranteed to pass. Wynne would be required to call for provincial elections if her majority government failed to do so because it would be seen as a vote of no confidence in her.

Grimshaw and other union leaders say the proposal should be considered as part of a separate bill. Now, Liberal leaders are trying to ram it through with a vote on the budget bill on Dec. 8 and are allowing just one day of public comment.

“We didn’t see this coming, that’s for sure,” said Matt Wayland, the First District’s political director. “You’re talking about public safety and the livelihood of people who work in compulsory certified trades. It’s troublesome they are limiting testimony to just one day.”

Wayland and other IBEW leaders are urging members and supporters to contact Liberal Party members and ask them to remove Schedule 17 from the budget bill.

The trade unions have traditionally been strong supporters of the Liberal Party, helping it regain its majority status in the 2014 provincial elections. But Local 353 has declined to offer financial support or attend Party events since the release of the Dean Report, Martin said.

“If this passes, it would be very difficult for us to support Liberal candidates,” Wayland said. “Our members would be mobilized. We would be doing our best to unseat them. Our members mobilized in the last election to put a lot of Liberal MPP's in the seats they have.”

A court challenge is expected if Schedule 17 passes as part of the budget bill. Martin expects Local 353 members to lose about one-third of their work.

“We need to tell this government that this is not the end,” Grimshaw said during the Nov. 30 rally. “It’s the beginning and we’re not taking this.”