The new leader of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Construction Council of Ontario (IBEW CCO) pledges to work closely with the Ontario government as it reinvents skilled trades regulation but there is one line James Barry will not cross.
Barry, a month into the job as the IBEW CCO executive secretary treasurer, replacing the retired John Grimshaw, said in an interview he enjoys a strong relationship with key decision-makers in the Ontario government and especially Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development Monte McNaughton. But Barry is committed to taking a stand if the government takes any steps to erode the core of skills that currently define Ontario’s electricians.
“I think the core restricted skill set we have, our scope of practice, if we see that is diminished or compromised or the restricted element is taken away, that is where we draw the line,” said Barry recently.
The government passed the Modernizing the Skilled Trades and Apprenticeship Act last year, paving the way for dismantling the Ontario College of Trades and giving the minister the power to prescribe regulations that define new skill sets replace compulsory trades.
The government subsequently backed away and appointed two advisors to consult with stakeholders on those key issues. The IBEW CCO has been active making submissions to McNaughton’s ministry, Barry said.
“A main priority is constructive dialogue with the government and right now, we feel Monte McNaughton has been fair and open to dialogue,” Barry said.
“At the end of the day everything we’d like to see may not come to fruition but certainly we have been listened to and we would like to see a balance and a compromise in the approach in all the new ideas and initiatives.”
There may be room for reforms in other trades, Barry said, but the IBEW is advocating that the compulsory construction trades remain intact.
“Our biggest concern, if they open that up and for example electrical is not a restricted skill set and parts of it are taken away, it is left up to the electrician to go in at end of day to hook it up, and we don’t know who’s done that work,” he said. “Under the system we have, if it is electrical work and it is entirely restricted, we can go into a situation knowing the previous person working on it by law understood what he was doing.”
Barry, 53, has a long history in the sector. He studied business management at Algonquin College in Ottawa before becoming an electrical apprentice and working his way up to the status of licensed 309A electrician. He later served five terms as business manager of IBEW Local 586 in Ottawa then moved on to the IBEW CCO.
He was one of the first appointees to the Ontario College of Trades Board of Governors and was a chairperson of its Construction Divisional Board. He also served on the Ontario-Quebec Bilateral Construction Labour Mobility Committee for over a decade.
“I have been working towards this for quite a while,” Barry said.
“It has been rewarding and I am glad to be in this position and I am truly looking forward to making the IBEW CCO better for our membership and increasing the profile of the CCO.”
Ensuring the IBEW remains rewarding to its members, attractive to potential recruits and competitive within the industry will require not only advocating for his union but also cooperating with contractors and other stakeholders, Barry said.
At the same time, the IBEW needs to work on broader goals that requires consultation even with such rivals such as CLAC (Christian Labour Association of Canada) and non-union electricians, Barry said.
“At end of day, we are a compulsory trade and probably the highest profile trade, the electrical trade is one of top trades that excites people to want to get into the trades, but we want to make sure it stays attractive and it stays lucrative or you are not going to have people wanting to join,” he said.
“We need to build relationships with many different people that possibly in the past the IBEW CCO may have overlooked, but now we understand we need to have dialogue with all industry stakeholders, whether they are union, non-union, the OEL (Ontario Electrical League) and CLAC as we move forward in a visionary and leadership role.”
Future advocacy will include “common sense” proposals such as having the Electrical Safety Authority tasked with enforcement in the electrical industry; supporting trade boards as regulators and protectors of the construction trades in the post-College of Trades regulatory regime; ensuring the Red Seal system remains intact and labour mobility across the country is ensured; and, once the government and stakeholders resolve the trades regulation issues, working to unite the unionized construction trades with LIUNA, the Carpenters’ and the Operating Engineers all cooperating with other members of the provincial Building Trades council.
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