Skilled Trades members unite at Unifor Collective Bargaining & New Technology Conference

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Five delegates at the Skilled Trades Conference standing in front of a pop up banner.

Skilled tradespeople from across Canada united at the Unifor Skilled Trades Collective Bargaining & New Technology Conference to discuss common issues and develop strategies to improve and grow the trades.

Dave Cassidy

“As we move forward, it is key that we maintain the Skilled Trades work as we know the Skilled Trades,” said Unifor Skilled Trades Council Chair Dave Cassidy. “It’s imperative that we’re making sure that we’re setting the standards and ensure that trades groups are not eroded away or amalgamated because that is when health and safety erodes away.”

More than 200 Skilled Trades delegates attended the tri-annual conference, which took place in Toronto Feb.7-9, 2023.

“It is so important for our Skilled Trades members to gather to discuss the challenges that they face and the impact that new technology is having on their workplaces so they can prepare and address those concerns during collective bargaining,” said Unifor Skilled Trades Director John Breslin. 

Lana Payne

The conference began with an address from Unifor National President Lana Payne who cited recent union achievements, including the certification of additional mandatory trades in B.C., the Pathways to Shipbuilding program that expands jobs to underrepresented communities at the Irving Shipyard in Nova Scotia and Unifor’s sponsorship of a women and skilled trades project with Sheridan College.

“If we want to ensure the trades are not eroded because of labour shortages we all need to be part of making sure the trades is a place for everyone,” Payne told conference delegates. “That means everyone needs to see themselves there. Because make no mistake, the pressure to water down the trades will grow as the shortages grow.”

Flavio Volpe, President of the Automotive Parts Manufacturing Association, spoke to delegates about his dream of having a Canadian owned auto manufacturer as the industry shifts to EV vehicles.

“We absolutely have the people and the technology and the dreamers to make this happen in Canada,” said Volpe.

The need to support the shift to EV vehicles was expanded on by Electric Mobility Canada President Daniel Breton who outlined the benefits for job creation, economic growth and the environment.

Future of Skilled Trades panel

A highlight of day one was a panel discussion on the future of Skilled Trades, with Unifor Skilled Trades Chair Dave Cassidy joined by Intersol facilitator Frank Van Gool, Skilled Trades Ontario CEO Melissa Young and Sheridan College Dean of the Faculty of Applied Sciences and Technology Lindsay Engel.

Engel referred to the systemic shortage of Skilled Trades workers as a ‘wicked problem’, with lots of finger pointing and not enough action for change.  She told delegates that the shortage is compounded by a decline in post-secondary skilled trades enrollment.

“The problem with Skilled Trades is a deep problem. Industry calls me all the time to ask why we don’t have more students. I ask them if they are taking apprenticeships,” said Engel. “We continue to struggle in terms of diversity and representation in the skilled trades. Women are almost invisible in industrial construction. Additionally, almost 50% of women Skilled Trades graduates are pushed out of their jobs within four years so fewer graduate and more are pushed out.”

“A lot of people think it’s about getting bodies in the classroom but it’s not just about that - it’s about having good jobs for students at the end,” added Cassidy.

On a positive note, Young pointed out that there is a shift in attitude by young people interested in joining the skilled trades, telling delegates that “the skilled trades have come a long way. People value having a skilled trade and the public value tradespeople as well.”

The Skilled Trades shortage and certification issues were further explored by guest speakers Canadian Apprenticeship Forum Project Manager Emily Arrowsmith and SkilledTradesBC Industry Training Authority Chief Strategy & Compliance Enforcement Officer Rod Bianchini.

“To keep pace with certification requirements over the long-term, an estimated 256,000 apprentices need to be recruited over the next five years,” Arrowsmith informed delegates.

In his presentation, Bianchini outlined major workforce challenges citing “labour shortages are everywhere, racism and discrimination persist, barriers created by occupational standards and prerequisites, employers not investing in upskilling and a lack of awareness of work opportunities.”

Delegates seated at the 2023 Unifor Skilled Trades Collective Bargaining & New Technology Conference

On day two, delegates shared the ramifications of technological change in their workplaces following Unifor National Research Representative Kaylie Tiessen’s presentation ‘The Future of Work is Ours: Confronting risks and seizing opportunities of technological change’.

Unifor member and NDP MPP for Niagara Falls, Fort Erie and Niagara-on-the-Lake Wayne Gates reflected on his time as a former Unifor Local President during his address to delegates.

“The one thing I always knew in my heart was that for me to have a good quality of life I belonged to a union," said Gates. "I am honoured to stand up here as a proud member of this union.”

Gates then called on delegates to work to elect more union people to government and industry boards and to provincial and federal legislatures.

Unifor National Secretary-Treasurer Len Poirier also stressed the need for legislative improvements. “The need to expand and work with the Skilled Trades council is important if we are going to be able to push the various levels of government for positive changes.”

Len Poirier, Unifor National Secretary Treasurer

Poirier announced that Unifor National is supporting the Unifor Skilled Trades department to apply for $3 million dollars from the Federal government in partnership with Sheridan college and three other colleges to run a program that digs deeper into why women are not staying the skilled trades by helping to change the culture.

“This program will attract diverse women to careers in the trades including Black, Indigenous and Women of Colour, women and gender non-conforming people in LGBTQ+ community and women experiencing a disability,” said Poirier.

“We encourage the Skilled Trades Council and every elected body in our union to play an active role to build the union for the next generation. What that means is all of us sitting here have to put some conscious efforts to making sure this union is stronger and economic prospects are better for the next generation.”

The conference ended with a candid and inspirational presentation by Team Canada goalie and mental health advocate Kendra Fisher who shared her personal journey to recovery.

Kendra Fisher

“Sometimes it only takes one person. You don’t have to have the answers, you don’t have to know how to fix me or what to say. You just have to be there to help people find tomorrow. Showing up for each other, your time, your presence is far more valuable that any information you might not have,” Fisher told Skilled Trades members.

“Today post-Covid 1 in 2 are reporting struggling with their mental health. This is a conversation we need to be having. Everybody is struggling but I see moments of hope because you have an organization here whose purpose is to make sure people are supported in what you are doing.”

A total of 19 Resolutions were passed during the three-day conference on key issues including work ownership, mentorship and training, apprenticeships hiring ratios and apprenticeship harmonization and a pan-Canadian apprenticeship program.

The Resolutions will now be used to set common standards in negotiations for Unifor Skilled Trades members across the country.

View the photo gallery of the Unifor Skilled Trades Collective Bargaining & New Technology Conference here.

Watch the video on the work of the Skilled Trades Council and Unifor Skilled Trades Department here.

Skilled Trades Conference delegates group picture