Journal of Commerce | Russell Hixson | November 28, 2019
The BC Building Trades’ long-time executive director, Tom Sigurdson, will be handing over his leadership role to Labour lawyer Andrew Mercier next March.
Sigurdson has become one of B.C.’s most outspoken voices for the labour movement but his journey to represent trades unions began in the 1980s in Alberta.
Sigurdson was born and raised in B.C. but became involved in Alberta politics after a chance meeting with Alberta’s only NDP MLA in the legislature at the time, Grant Notley. Sigurdson, who was already active in politics, seized the opportunity to become his executive assistant. It was a role he served from 1982 to 1984 when Notley died in a plane crash with five others in northern Alberta. Notley’s daughter, Rachel Notley would later go one to be elected premier of Alberta in 2015.
Sigurdson continued his political career in the province and was elected as an NDP candidate in the electoral district of Edmonton-Belmont in 1986. His district was full of trades people and soon Sigurdson became the party’s labour critic.
After his career as a politician, he moved back to B.C. in 1994 and began freelancing. In 1997 he landed his first stint as The BC Building Trades’ executive director. In 2003 he left to work in Ottawa for Canada’s Building Trades Unions and later worked as the training plan coordinator for Teamsters Local 213 in Vancouver. He returned to his role as executive director of the BC Building Trades in 2011.
During his time with the Building Trades, Sigurdson has seen significant progress on apprenticeships, Indigenous inclusion and recruiting women – issues he hopes to be able to still fight for on various working groups and sub committees after he leaves his position at the Building Trades.
“We still have a long way to go, but there have been significant changes to women on the tools,” said Sigurdson. “We are still in the single digits, but I would love to be able to continue to work on better opportunities for women in the trades. We need women in the trades if we are going to fill that skill shortage gap. We need more Indigenous people in the trades if we are going to fill that gap. That means reaching out and becoming gender-aware, becoming culturally-aware of differences because most of the construction companies are owned by my demographic: older, middle-aged white guys.”
Sigurdson also expressed excitement over the shift in attitude on apprenticeships that began in 2015 when the province introduced regulatory changes requiring apprentices on publicly funded projects. He explained that while this change had no teeth to enforcement, it started a dialogue in the industry and government about the skills shortage crisis and the urgent need to find apprentices opportunities.
Sigurdson said that these discussions have led to the province’s first Community Benefits Agreements. According to the Building Trades, the framework provides hiring provisions to ensure opportunities for Indigenous workers, local residents, apprentices and women in trades. Workers receive union wages and benefits for the duration of the project and have access to additional safety and training programs.
“Enforcement is going to happen with Community Benefits Agreements,” said Sigurdson. “You are going to find there will be enforcement of the (apprentice) ratio. And that is a good thing for the industry. We have been working very hard, all these years, to continue to supply – to the degree that we can – a qualified workforce.”
While Sigurdson still plans to be still be an advocate for labour, he said that he will miss representing the building trades unions.
“When someone hits a light switch, they don’t think about how that power got there. Until it doesn’t work in the summer, nobody thinks about how the air conditioning works. Nobody thinks about how important it is to have a level floor in a high-rise building so the glazing fits properly,” said Sigurdson. “It really is this massive jigsaw puzzle that comes together to create something that is remarkable. And this goes on day after day. I marvel at the skill sets of the people I have tried to represent, and I hope I have done a reasonably effective job representing them and their interests in some of the things I have tried to do. I am going to miss that a lot. I am honoured to have been able to share their stories.”