Going to Extremes
/ Author: Geoff Dueck Thiessen
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Going to Extremes

Manitoba’s Building Trades Unions provide a case study in oversimplifying a complex problem

By Geoff Dueck Thiessen, Winnipeg Regional Director

I sometimes describe my job as a professional communicator. The success of any of my tasks rests largely on my ability to communicate effectively to members, employers, colleagues, and the public. And it seems I’m on shifting ground.

It could be argued that we’re living in the most complex version of the world we’ve ever been in. And we’re also witnessing the emergence of voices that are trying to simplify things for us. All the while, social media and the millennial generation are rewriting vocabularies and patterns of communication.

What is the most effective way for unions to communicate in this fluid, increasingly complex time?

Manitoba’s Building Trades Unions (BTU) provide a case study in the wrong way to simplify a complex world. The Keeyask Hydro Dam is being built right now under a monopoly project labour agreement (PLA) with the BTU. The project is running vastly over budget and past schedule and is fraught with controversy about working conditions and fair treatment for locally hired workers.

PLAs have been used for decades, ensuring labour peace while giving the BTU a monopoly on labour. All workers on a project must sign a membership card with and pay dues to one of the Building Trades Unions. But the Manitoba government is looking to pass legislation that would prohibit PLAs that force unionization with the BTU.

In response, the Manitoba Building Trades Unions have launched a campaign warning that without restrictive PLAs, the sky will fall. Specifically, they claim we need to save Manitoba jobs.

Their message is simple, and may rally some loyalty responses from their membership. But is it accurate?

An accurate response would consider the complexity of this issue. The conditions under which monopoly PLAs were first used have changed drastically. Laws are better, projects are smarter, and the union world is more diverse. PLAs can and will still be used, but they can’t be monopolistic by forcing unionization on all workers.

In a diverse world that values competition and various approaches to complicated issues, this change is a good thing. It’s easily arguable that the old monopoly PLA model is outdated and not achieving its intended purposes—except for preventing strikes. So why not change with the times?

The voices trying to simplify the world today are dominating the news headlines and Twitter, and many of us cringe. But who has time for a complex response? Or better yet, who will listen?

The easier, and often selected way, seems like a more effective method to persuade people in the short term. That is, simplify the issue. And that’s what the Manitoba Building Trades Unions are doing with their save-Manitoba-jobs campaign.

The public shouldn’t be fooled by this simplistic scare tactic. Large, often remote industrial construction projects are complex, and a simple monopoly labour solution is no longer the answer.

CLAC embraces a competitive, pluralistic environment where all contractors can participate, whether their employees are members of the Building Trades Unions, alternative unions like CLAC, or nonunion. Iron sharpens iron, and each labour model brings particular strengths.

CLAC is a local union, with a growing Manitoba membership. And our signatory contractors have proven track records when it comes to employing and engaging local Indigenous members as well. We believe a more open future is a better, safer, fully trained future for all Manitobans.

The changes we are now experiencing and anticipating are enormous. Climate, the economy, the nature of work, demographics, technology . . . the list goes on.

Unions will have to decide if they will change too. In the face of our increasingly complex world, will they choose to become more complex? Or will they go to extremes to try to simplify the world?

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