Some 12,000 Ontario plumbers and pipefitters are on the precipice of their first strike in three decades, after a delay imposed by employer bargainers, who presented a “final offer” just as the union was preparing to walk off jobsites at 12:01 a.m. on May 28.
The dispute between members of the United Association (UA) representing plumbers and pipefitters and the Mechanical Contractors Association of Ontario (MCAO), representing employers, has similar characteristics to one involving thousands of sheet metal workers, who walked off the job in early May.
Employers have insisted that the work week be increased from 36 to 40 hours, and that they have “naming rights” to hire and select union members to work anywhere in the province, instead of needing to use workers selected by local union hiring halls.
UA union locals, represented by the Ontario Pipe Trades Council (OPTC), told members to take their personal tools home with them Monday night (May 28) but then abruptly called off the job action overnight after MCAO negotiators presented their “final offer”.
Under Ontario labour rules, this offer must be presented to workers for a vote — so union locals across the province are holding special meetings today (May 30) to review and vote on the offer. OPTC negotiators say they would like members to reject the offer. If they do, the workers could go on strike as early as May 31.
The right to control hiring hall/worker assignment capacities is among the unions’ greatest leverage tools in managing their employer relationships.
By controlling the worker selection process, the unions can reward or punish individual employers by selecting good workers or troublemakers when an employer needs additional labour. In other cases where this power exists, employers fight to keep their best employees on the job year round to avoid reverting to the hiring hall.
Unionized employers, as well, face challenging competition in some markets from non-union employers and working groups represented by the Christian Labour Alliance of Canada (CLAC), which encourages tradespeople to develop skills in multiple areas, and co-operates with employers in creating flexible working arrangements to meet individual organizations’ requirements.
A third factor underlying the current negotiations is the fact that the previous Liberal government, which had close relationships and political support from many of the province’s construction trade unions, has been replaced by Conservative premier Doug Ford’s government, which has expressed support for the Labourers’ International Union of North America in scope-of-work disputes, and has decided to abolish the Ontario College of Trades (OCOT), which had the support of organized labour.