Unfortunately, Canada’s job market policies are still mired in the past. We spend too much money paying people not to work and too little to help them get back into the world of work (David Crane, “New Approach to Job Spending Must be Devised,” The Toronto Star, July 23, 1992, p. B2).
One regrettable effect of adversarial labour relations is that it undermines economic performance and thus adds to the number of jobless. Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) president Bob White and his cohorts, who have made a full time occupation out of treating labour relations as a component of the class struggle, would never admit this elementary fact of life. But their protestation notwithstanding, the more they succeed in instilling the adversarial mindset in their followers the more unemployment will result. The converse is also true; the more employers and employees (and unions) cooperate, the more employment opportunities are likely to be created. One area of the workplace where cooperation is especially vital and potentially fruitful is the training and retraining of workers.
David Crane reported that Canada’s training record is nothing to boast about, compared to other countries. Overall spending on labour market policies (including unemployment insurance and training) at 2.73 per cent of last year’s total national output, compared to Germany’s 2.87 per cent, appears respectable. However, only a small part (0.62 per cent of its output) was spent on “active” programs to get people back to work, while most of the money was used to pay people who were out of work. Other countries spent two or three times that amount on the “active” measures. As Crane points out, “…if Canada pays people to stay at home, it’s preparing them for welfare; but if it pursues so-called active policies, such as training, it is preparing people for work.”
It is instructive to recall that when the federal government attempted to revamp the unemployment insurance system (see the 1986 Forget Commission Report), so that its emphasis would shift from paying people for not working to better equipping workers to meet the changing demands of the modern workplace, the mainline trade unions, among others, raised a mighty ruckus. The CLC denounced the changes as an anti-labour attempt by the Conservative and business-oriented government to undermine the unemployment insurance system.
Not surprisingly, the CLC and its ideological soul mates won, and nothing much changed. In other words, the workers lost. Nonetheless, there is emerging among some business and labour leaders a greater realization that cooperation in the crucial area of training and education is to their mutual benefit.
Working together to keep working
Giles Gherson, writing in the Financial Times of Canada (September 28, 1992), reports that the shortage of skilled workers in Canada is a serious problem. The good news is that in a number of industries there is now emerging a concerted effort on the part of employers, employees, educators, and government agencies to improve a “patchwork” of federal-provincial training systems that was performing poorly.
For example, the Canadian Automobile Repair and Service Council has conducted an intensive examination of the auto industry’s training needs. Subsequently, it designed a four-year national curriculum for training mechanics while persuading community colleges and provincial governments to cooperate in this effort. Besides upgrading the training of mechanics, it will also serve to make sure that qualifications are the same in every part of the country.
Something similar has been worked out in British Columbia between the International Woodworkers of America and an association of major lumber companies who formed the Western Wood Products Forum. This cooperative endeavour is seeking to achieve a better inventory of the forest industry in British Columbia. Another important goal of this effort is to improve on-the-job training and the retraining of laid-off workers as the industry is forced to adjust to changing market conditions. One forum taskforce, headed by a top company and union official, is currently investigating the possibility of moving toward higher value-added products.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) and a number of grocery product businesses are cooperating in dealing with. a host of this industry’s challenges, including job training, packaging, and product supply issues. Tim Catherwood, an official of the UFCW, explained that five years ago this type of cooperation with business would have been inconceivable. “It wasn’t so long ago that we, as a union, simply wouldn’t have participated in a review of farm product/supply management. But now we can see how a rigid system is denying companies the product they need for processing, and that’s hurting our jobs. So it’s definitely in our interest to push for improvements.”
The Canadian Steel Trades Employment Council (CSTEC) is another joint industry-labour body. In an industry notorious for its us-versus-them attitude, it has managed job counselling and training programs for 7,500 steel workers who have been retrained for new occupations after losing their jobs in the steel industry. Now the CSTEC is busy with new on-the-job training programs for the remaining 37,000 steel workers. The courses include instruction in basic metallurgy, economics of the industry, quality control, literacy, numeracy, computer literacy, and communications.
Peter Warrian, executive director of the CSTEC explained: “People are always looking at German and Japanese labor-management models but what they’re missing is that right here in Canada, and quite rapidly now, we’re seeing the development of our own type of labor-management collaboration, centred on industry sectors.” He pointed out that in the last five years 24 sectoral groups have been organized to encourage labour-management cooperation and improve the industry’s performance. Job training is high on the list of priorities.
Greg Murtagh, a spokesperson for the electrical-equipment industry’s sector skills council, is also enthusiastic about the benefits of a changed attitude towards employees: “More and more I’m hearing managers who sit around our table say, Hey, that labor person has a valid point and we should all listen. The experience of working together to develop, say, an industry-training program is a confidence-building thing.”
Gherson reports that an encouraging aspect of this development is that government agencies are serving in a support function but the focus is on the private sector stakeholders themselves. As Janice Moyer of the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC) explains: “We’re all starting to realize that there’s a need to get business to be far more independent and less reliant on government to fix our problems. We need to start fixing our own problems.”
Greater self reliance coupled with the recognition that labour and management are partners in a joint undertaking will be beneficial all around. Such a change is long overdue, and not in the least in the area of training so that workers are equipped with the skills they need for a rapidly changing work environment.