Union Membership Has Its Advantages

Photos by Valerie Keeler and courtesy LiUNA

LiUNA International Vice President, Joseph Mancinelli Has Become a Powerful Advocate for Aboriginal Youth and the Trades and Prime Minister Trudeau is Listening.

On the telephone he has a pleasant, moderated voice, but the passion for the work that has been done and still needs to be done — to encourage and protect workers in the trades — makes every word Joseph Mancinelli says resonate.

Joe Mancinelli has been with the Labourers International Union of North America for 38 years. This year he turns 60, and he’s seen an evolution in the industries LiUNA represents and in LiUNA itself.

“The baby boom generation has retired or is retiring within the next 10 years. In the construction industry many were post-war immigrants. It’s really hard to replace that generation,” he said. “There is some automation, but we also need skills that can’t be done by automation.”

One of LiUNA’s solutions is to tap into the youth of Aboriginal communities, immigrants and the kids who are in school now. “We need to do some changes in the way the school system works. When I was a kid shop class was where kids got to experiment with electricity, woodworking, motors, etc.”

He said this ability to experiment under supervision made him and his peers realize that it is possible, even easy, to fix things, to build things, to work on things. “Education needs to invest in something that the economy needs. If all that is taught is academics we’re not educating kids for the future. We need to get back to teaching some skills, and expose the next generation to them.”

He agreed the skills that come from all kinds of related work, whether purely manual or programming software for the industries that use robotic assembly, can produce useful life skills. The ability to do simple repairs around the home, work on vehicles or fix electronics saves money and builds a sense of accomplishment.

A wide range of tech skills are valued in today’s economy, and the fragility of long-term work suggests the importance of having numerous abilities.

And there are jobs that will always exist, no matter what. “The world always needs plumbers. It needs electricians, carpenters, truck drivers, heavy equipment operators. There will always be that need.”

That’s one of the many reasons he wants to encourage Aboriginal youth in particular. When asked if he thought First Nations had been overlooked in the worlds of jobs and training, he answered: “Yes. I don’t think you’re overstating it. Canada is the best country in the world, as benchmarked against other countries, and depending on the questions asked. We have good legislation, but also the Canadian psyche – fairness is embedded in us, in parents and children. The way we treat people, we don’t discriminate, not against people from other cultures or other countries. But,” he added with a thoughtful pause, “our biggest blemish as a country is the way we have treated our Indigenous peoples. We have put our heads in the sand. It’s Canada’s black eye.” Another pause. “Maybe because we are good, that makes it even worse.”

He continued, “I get that history does tarnish reputations, and really our children shouldn't’t be burdened with the sins of their fathers.”

He mentioned how Canada doesn't’t have the baggage that some other countries have, with legacies like slavery or civil war. “But we have that terrible blemish on our reputation. Of what we have done to Indigenous peoples.”

He wants to empower some of the young men and women of First Nations and Inuit communities. “There are all these problems – many complex problems, but some solutions are not complex. Some are easy. For example, clean water in Canada should not be an issue.”

Like many people watching the struggle for remote communities with maintaining good drinking water, he sees the need for infrastructure. But plans must include proper training of workers to build that infrastructure, followed by real, regular training on maintenance of the infrastructure.

In remote communities this critical role is not being filled and he sees no good reason for such a failure. “The technology exists for water treatment plants, and the money is there. These situations are tragic, and needless.”

He discussed the role of LiUNA in bringing opportunities to many diverse communities, whether First Nations, Northern, remote, new Canadians or to those in economically depressed areas. “We have a lot of members without high school diplomas, but we train them, in life skills, basic math, lots of useful things. Soon they’re proficient and productive — and they’re making a great living.”

Another benefit is that these newly-trained technicians can bring those skills back and help in their communities.

His stance isn’t just about optics either.

“We’ve committed resources full time on this file. (Former Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief) Phil Fontaine heads the committee.”

It’s a philanthropic exercise, which often includes food and breakfasts for children, starting them on the road to learning with a little help.

“But training is the centrepiece of what we do,” Mancinelli continued. “We insert a higher degree of curriculum.”

The key, however, is relating to the culture. “For many of us who aren’t part of a community, we don’t always understand what you need to do to rebuild trust. There’s one step forward for two back.”

Part of the problem is the political system. “Chretien gave something and Harper took it back. That reinforces a lack of trust if the next person can backtrack or renege. They’re (Indigenous communities) right to be distrustful.”

The Trudeau government’s 2017 budget has an emphasis on skills training and Indigenous peoples, which is encouraging, but how to gain trust? Said Mancinelli: “Well, we’ll bring elders who stay in the room, and that shows, by their word and presence, that it’s worth it for you to be there.”

Mancinelli said in recent years the union’s retention rates have increased significantly. “We’re now keeping six or seven out of ten who attended training, where it used to be one or two. We provide opportunities to work in occupations that give them a real living. To do all the things that we take for granted. There’s so much work to do we’re not even close, but we are bringing in more people.”

It’s not all philanthropy either.

“We need these people. Here we have a bunch of young, and often underprivileged, young people. There’s a potential win-win. They get good employment and we get new young members.”

Are there advantages to union membership?

“When I started in 1978, advocacy was not at its best then, but our workers were well represented, and earned good money, and that brought more changes for the better,” he said. “Members made a good living, and once that was achieved we had to more to work with.”

One of many examples, he said, is the pension plan. “We put money into it to make it what it is today.”

Mancinelli says the ongoing challenge for his union, and for any union which represents workers in the trades and related industries, is worker safety.

“Some of our advocacy has been very far-reaching and that has helped, but there are unfinished things. People still get killed on the job.”

(Construction deaths in Ontario in 2016 totaled 15.)

Safety is of paramount importance to him.

“No question, there have been improvements, but there is still a level of insecurity there. We need a system in place that’s a legislative system that protects workers.”

He would like to see legislation enforced, and not by a fine which is a drop in the offender’s bucket. “Companies which have a history of unsafe work environments should be seriously punished.”

But while he and LiUNA continue to push for increased safety, he emphasized that’s not the only important area in which they work. He cited a long list of accomplishments, including the way his union has improved opportunities for people working in related industries. “You don’t have to be in a union to gain from union advocacy.”

His career has provided personal satisfaction as well. “It’s interesting now because of the challenges and the changes in society.”

He pointed out that job longevity like he had is unlikely for new generations.

“I’ve been 38 years with one organization,” he said. “My own kids are experiencing moving on from one thing to another. They’re shifting their careers while still in their twenties.”

He said the organization has gone through an evolution to keep pace with societal changes and to changes in materials.

“We have to care about the environment, for our own sake, or be victims.” His voice gained intensity when he talked about protecting people from exposure to harmful materials.“There’s too much. Often there has been exposure over long periods of time. The toxin can lie dormant for years, then suddenly it strikes.”

He has no immediate retirement plans. “There’s still a lot to get done,” he said.“And a lot of interesting challenges.”