The Manitoba Building Trades (MBT) has been ousted from the Manitoba Construction Sector Council (MCSC), leaving 13 unions and their more than 10,000 workers without a voice at the board room table of the publicly funded agency.
The MCSC, which receives operational funding from the provincial government, took the unprecedented action of revoking the membership of the building trades, a founding member of the council, in late May.
The trades have been part of the MCSC since it was formed in 2009. The expulsion has resulted in the MCSC being the only provincial construction sector council in Canada without labour representation.
“By removing MBT, MCSC has undermined its own standing as a sector council,” says Sudhir Sandhu, chief executive officer of the MBT. “It has basically become an industry association and, in our view, no longer satisfies the essential criteria under Manitoba’s sector councils program.”
The sector council is now similar to the Auto Dealers Association or the Restaurant Association, Sandhu claims.
“Neither qualifies for government funding. This is an issue that the government will have to review closely.”
He says it was an regressive move for the MCSC, which has a mandate from the provincial government to represent and advise on the construction industry as a whole.
“It is a huge step backwards. By removing labour and frontline workforce perspectives from the table, MCSC has created a myopic environment. For a council mandated to promote skilled construction trades careers, silencing the largest private investor in the training space is astoundingly short-sighted and counterproductive.”
There are differing views on why the building trades have been expelled.
The MBT claim it’s because of public comments that were made by Sandhu about the appropriateness of micro-credential programs and the damage they might cause to apprenticeship programs. MBT had raised concerns about training workers in one specific task as opposed to the full scope of practice.
However, the MCSC has another take on the matter.
Colleen Munro, board chair of the MCSC, provided an emailed statement to the Journal of Commerce that indicated the reason for the expulsion was due to MBT pursuing a different mandate.
“As a follow up to your inquiry about recent activity at our board, this is to confirm that Manitoba Building Trades is no longer a part of our sector council,” she wrote in the statement. “As they have continued to grow in their capacity as a for-profit organization, it became increasingly apparent that the best path forward was to allow our very different mandates to unfold separately, especially given that we are a not-for-profit.
“We look forward to continuing to work alongside MBT, in collaboration, as we all strive to continue identifying and meeting the training needs of the construction sector.”
However, Sandhu says his comments about micro-credentials were cited as the exact reason of concern for MCSC.
He believes the council is scrambling to add reasons and divert to other differences as the reasons, including the “inexplicable assertion” that MBT, which is a not-for-profit, is a for-profit entity.
As for speaking to the media about micro-credentials or other matters, “we very much believe this to be well within our rights, both individually and organizationally,” he says. “We believe attempting to silence a legitimate voice and essential discussion on critical policy issues is a form of bullying and very likely a violation of charter rights respecting free expression. Singling out a union organization for this type of aggression may also violate Manitoba’s Human Rights Code.”
The MCSC and MBT have very different positions on the micro-credentialing issue.
A report from the province indicates that exploring opportunities for micro-credentials and layering of credentials could assist with the economic recovery and help individuals displaced in the pandemic to quickly top-up their skills.
However, the building trades are concerned that micro-credentialing programs might cause problems to apprenticeship programs if they are used as a substitute for full and comprehensive education programs.
Sandhu says the system needs journeyed skilled tradesworkers, not partially and narrowly trained piece workers.
Peter Wightman, executive director of the Construction Labour Relations Association of Manitoba (CLRAM), the employer association that establishes collective agreements between employers and building trade unions, indicated in a statement that MCSC has made a mistake by expelling the MBT.
“MCSC has silenced a significant workforce segment that invests heavily in construction workforce development,” he states. “CLRAM as a key funder of workforce training, finds this action appalling and harmful to the industry as a whole in Manitoba.”
Meanwhile, Sandhu says the MBT will continue with the essential work of training and developing Manitoba’s skilled construction workforce.
“We will continue to invest heavily in programs to diversify our skilled workforce,” he notes. “We were shocked and dismayed by the heavy handed and confrontational conduct on MCSC’s part. We hope that the remaining member organizations will understand the error of removing MBT and rectify this very awkward and industry damaging decision.”
Other members of the MCSC include the Winnipeg Construction Association, the Manitoba Home Builders’ Association and the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association.