The Ontario College of Trades — Unexpected consequences: When the story turns out different than the vision

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Ratio reviews

Ratio reviewsWe are publishing a story in our Canadian media this week about some suprising developments with the Ontario College of Trades, a new provincial institution designed to “professionalize” the skilled trades by creating a self-regulatory body, framed to some degree on models such as the College of Physicians and Surgeons, or the College of Teachers. (“College” here has connetations of the U.S. Electoral College, rather than a post-secondary education institution.)

The government’s decision to establish the new entity has polarized the industry, largely on the divide between organized labour and the non-union employer movement. Some mixed construction associations, with both union and non-union employer members, have been caught in the middle.

I’ve sought to retain an objective perspective about the initiative, and discovered a surprising development as the new organization begins to flex its regulatory muscles in reviewing apprenticeship ratios.

Organized labour wants to strictly control the number of new apprentices, not surprisingly, because (though the unions don’t say this), if the inbound labour supply can be controlled, scarcity increases negotiating power — and of course junior apprentices, paid less, can do time-consuming jobs that eat up hourly wages but don’t require the higher skills of fully-qualified journey-persons.

Onwers and non-union organizations would like to see the ratios reduced.

In Ontario, the apprenticeship ratios haven’t been reviewed for many trades for more than three decades, so some sort of review seemed to be in order — and the College of Trades took on the challenge as its first initiative.

Then, the surprise.

As the review panels, comprised of members representing owners, unions and experienced labour adjudicators, began reviewing individual trades’ ratios, they have decided on an 8:1 overall  ratio to reduce the ratios — meaning that employers and non-union workers are coming out ahead of the game. The reductions aren’t as great as the non-union sector would like, but still, the story is not going the way organized labour would have hoped.

As well, in an ironic wrinkle, the OCOT appointed Phil Besseling, former chair of Merit Ontario (an advocate of the open-shop movement) and one of the strongest anti-union leaders, to serve  on a review board for the trade his company employs. The counterpart union tried to have him booted off the panel, but failed. The OCOT pays Besseling $400 a day for his time (not a bad per-diem, even for a successful entrepreneur). He says he still wishes the new organization would disappear.

I tried to obtain comments from the sheet metal workers’ and roofers’ union business agent, but he didn’t return my calls.  The OCOT’s communications/pr person helped out — knowing that the story I am writing appears to debunk the arguments that the new organization would be a bastion of labour union power and leadership. However, he gave clues that the next round of apprenticeship ratio reviews might be different as he expects the number of organizations and indivduals speaking up on the topic will dramatically increase, presumably as unions lobby their membership to communicate (and I expect non-union organizations will do the same.)

This story, of course, is a classic example of journalism at work. Writers with a “news sense” love contradictions, ironies, and unexpected consequences. I don’t have an axe to grind, only a desire to see what is really happening.

It also shows how change can result in unexpected consequences and opportunities. Maybe non-union employers would still like the OCOT to “disappear” and organized labour still, officially, thinks the new organization will effectively represent its interests. Maybe employers and some tradespeople will complain about the higher fees and costs for trades registration to support the OCOT administration (and those fancy per-diems for review panels). However, maybe matters such as apprentice ratio reviews are best handled by an arms-length quasi-professional organization such as the OCOT.

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