The Ontario College of Trades: Surprising early rulings favour employers’ interests, defeating unions

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            BCA speaks out as new regulator hires first inspectorsBCA Annual Report staff writer

In its first months of operation, the new Ontario College of Trades (OCOT) has attracted controversy and reported surprising early adjudicative results; where unions are losing apprenticeship ratio review battles to non-union organizations.

This surprising non-union employer-friendly development hasn’t reduced the frustration and anger with the provincial government in introducing the new regulatory agency, largely at the behest of organized labour.  However, anger about what has been described as a “trades tax” is now also growing among union members, whose leaders support the OCOT.

Last year, the BCA joined a campaign to encourage the Ontario government to cancel its plans to launch the college of trades, although the Liberal government, with NDP backing, went ahead with the legislation despite the lobbying.

“We’ve seen little or no evidence that this trades tax will have any benefit,” said BCA president Katherine Van Leeuwen. “It will drive up construction costs in Barrie, feed the underground economy and drive people away from skilled trades. We joined the campaign because we can’t afford to let that happen.”

The Stop The Trades Tax campaign, launched in 2011 grew to 21 organizations, representing more than 6,400 small, medium and large Ontario businesses and 113,200 skilled tradespeople across the province.

“The McGuinty government (is using) the trades tax to build another layer of government bureaucracy that no one needs or wants,” campaign chair Sean Reid in an earlier news release. “We’re encouraging tradespeople, their families and friends to help us stop the trades tax by writing to their MPP and signing our petition.”

Despite the lobbying, the OCOT opened for business this spring.  Now there is growing anger and frustration among some tradespeople about the much higher dues required for compulsory trades certification compared to former Ministry of Labour requirements. As well, other observers are concerned about the growing bureaucracy and organizational cost, as the OCOT hires its first 20 inspectors, with plans for as many as 130 more.

(OCOT membership is currently required only for the existing compulsory trades. The concern among some non-union organizations is that organized labour will lobby and succeed in causing other trades to be compulsory, imposing new levels of restriction and regulation on these skills.)

However, the earliest results where the OCOT has started shaping policy and setting the rules are surprising: Employers have been able to win reductions in apprenticeship ratio levels for several trades, including some where former Merit Ontario chair Phil Besseling – one of the anti-union open shop movement’s most prominent leaders — successfully retained his spot on an adjudication panel and then ruled against the interests of organized labour.

In fact, where ratios have been changed, eight have been lowered and only one has been increased. (See related story.)

Reduced ratios mean that employers can hire more lower-cost apprentices in relation to the number of journeypersons on the job. Employer groups including Merit Ontario and the Ontario Coalition of Construction Employers generally believe a one-to-one journeyman to apprentice ratio is sufficient.

The Ontario ratios for most trades have not been reviewed for many years, in some cases upwards of three decades or more.  The OCOT has been mandated to conduct the ratio reviews once every four years.

Among the surprising decisions, one review panel rejected a “preliminary motion as to bias” to have Besseling removed from the panel evaluating the sheet metal trade.

The panel rejected a motion from representatives of the Ontario Sheet Metal Workers’ and Roofers’ Conference for Besseling to be recused.  After deliberations, the panel then reduced the ratios for both sheet metal workers and roofers.

Besseling, who receives $400 per day in compensation for his work as an adjudicator on four review panels, says he still wishes the OCOT would be closed.

“The ratio reviews could have been done by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities,” Besseling said.  “There was no need to set up a separate entity, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars if not millions.”

  •             “The ministry . . . was doing a fine job and wasn’t broken,” Besseling said.  “Why did we set up this multi-million dollar entity to be the arbitrar of everything?”

Tim Fenton, business manager of the Ontario Sheet Metal Workers’ and Roofers’ Conference, could not be reached for comment.

Tristan Austin, the OCOT’s senior communications officer, indicated that both unions and employers will likely mobilize to an increased extent for the next round of ratio reviews. “I assure you we will have more submissions (in 2016) than this time,” he said.

“This has never been done before in Ontario, ” he said.

“The college expects that changes to apprenticeship ratios will come into effect in 2014,” Austin said.  “The college will also inform apprentices and employers about the changes before the changes take effect.”

He said “the college is neutral on the matter” of ratio reviews. Interested parties have the right to make submissions to the review panels, who make their decisions by considering standardized criteria including safety, environmental concerns, labour supply, and circumstances in other provinces.

Meanwhile, members of some unions, especially the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) are rebelling against the higher OCOT fees – significantly greater than the previous Ministry of Labour certification costs.

In Ottawa, for example, James Barry, the IBEW local 586’s business agent, says in a note to members that he has “received a number of calls” from members about the OCOT, indicating that some are concerned about the organization’s higher registration fees.

Elsewhere, electrical foreman Joseph Sperg (he lives in another IBEW local’s jurisdiction) wrote: “For their part, all working tradesmen are seeing (union or non-union) is an increase in fees for no noticeable benefit. They couldn’t care less about the college’s mandate to promote trades to youth programs, they loath their new public webpage where unreasonable customers (they exist) can now conduct their vendettas, they don’t believe for a minute the very small group of enforcement officials the college can afford will accomplish anything meaningful.

“They do resent a college that bills itself as allowing tradespeople to have a voice in their own management instead of having it dictated to them by the big bad government (who only charged them $60 every three years) – yet this college never queried their opinions or had them vote for any form of leadership  . . . meet the new boss, same as the old boss… .only worse,” Sperg wrote.