Ontario’s construction strikes — Two perspectives (and causes)

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United Association (UA) Local 71 business manager Angus Maisonneuv
United Association (UA) Local 71 business manager Angus Maisonneuve

The strikes that have pulled thousands of sheet metal workers, plumbers and pipefitters off the job in the most intense Ontario construction labour disputes in three decades can be boiled down to two causes: Protecting long-ago-won workers’ rights, and non-union competition.

You can see both perspectives in conversations with representatives from each side to the dispute.

United Association (UA) Local 71 business manager Angus Maisonneuve says plumbing and pipefitting in the industrial, commercial and institutional sector is hard work under often challenging conditions – and current rules regarding “naming” of employees and setting the 36-hour work week are fair, balanced and not costly to employers.

Meanwhile, Wayne Peterson, executive director of the Construction Employers Coordinating Council of Ontario (CECCO) says employers are facing increasingly intense competition from non-union organizations, who will work 44 hour work-weeks, and where employers can pick and choose their workers to send to job sites anywhere in the province.

Maisonneuve, whose union local represents more than 1,200 plumbers and pipefitters in Ottawa and eastern Ontario, says he is perplexed by the employers’ demands.

He said various UA locals have different rules, and in the Ottawa area, the union operates with a 50 per cent “name hiring” system – with additional provisions allowing employers to name hire all job foremen. As well, the employer can name hire the first four workers for jobs of 5,000 hours or less under a special contract provision.

Things could go badly if employers have 100 per cent name hiring rights, as they are currently insisting, he indicated.

“The employers want to pick and choose,” Maisonneuve said. “If you stand up for your bargaining rights; then you become blackballed. And we have minorities. We have women in the trade, and if we go to 100 per cent name hire, they’re not going to get a fair shake.

“We have young people that are unknown in the street, apprentices that are coming up, right, an if nobody knows them, they will not survive in the street.

“You have to get a fair shake. You have to get one chance, and if we go to 100 per cent name hire, those kids are never going to get a chance, those ladies are never going to get a fair chance, those minorities, visible minorities, will never get a big chance. That’s a big concern.”

The other issue, relating working hours, also perplexes Maisonneuve. In some markets, UA members who work for more than 36 hours in a week are paid double time, and in others, such as Thunder Bay, the union local has negotiated a 40 hour work week.

However, UA 71 and local employers in Ottawa and eastern Ontario have taken a middle road – the first four hours of overtime (that is, from 36 to 40 hours) are paid at time and a half, and the benefits and supplemental costs are the same as for straight time.

“It’s (just) an extra $120 dollars to work four hours at time and a half,” he said.

Forcing a 40 hour work week will be costly in the long term, considering the strain on workers’ health in often harsh conditions.

“Construction’s a very hard job,” he said. “If you are working out on the slab and its minus forty, and we’ve seen a lot of days here minus 40 this winter, with the wind.

“We have some contractors that go to four nines – four nine hour days, right. So if a guy works four nine hour shifts, if you add the extra four hours, it goes to five eight hour days, right.

“Number one: More parking, more day care, it ads to the carbon footprint, right. I could go on . . . clothes, lunch.

“But the biggest factor is that here in the federal government everyone works 37.5 hours. Can you agree with that? They’re in a controlled environment, with air conditioning and heat. They’re not out in the rain. They’re not out in the elements.

“It takes a big toll on the guys in the sun – 43 degrees plus with the humidex. The guy’s in the sand, he’s in the mud, he’s in the dirt, he’s on the slab. An extra day, an extra four hours makes a big difference. It really makes a big difference.”

As well, Maisoneuve said, the union has a province-wide contract provision allowing for split shifts, where the employer can be guaranteed coverage for 45 hours per week at straight time. This is handled by the union when requested by the employer, ensuring there is always the required number of workers on the job for a nine-hour shift every day, and by replacing workers whose 36 hour shift has ended.

Wayne Peterson, meanwhile, speaking for employers, says they are increasingly concerned about competition from non-union businesses.

“Our contractors are looking to remain competitive,” he said. If a project has a very tight schedule, non-union employees will work 44 hours a week straight time, as per the Labour Relations Act.

“At 36 hours, our guys (in places like Toronto) are paying double time, meaning that for the eight hour difference, our guys are paid for 16 hours, and that makes it much harder to compete.”

“Non union competition is growing,” he said. “We’re seeing people coming in from out of the province such as Alberta. “We’re also looking at legislation, such as Bill 66 schedule 9, which lets municipalities out of their collective agreements.”

Notably the issues at dispute do not apply directly to all the plumbers and sheet metal workers across the province, but union members in areas where name hiring and a longer work week are the norm still voted overwhelmingly to join their counterparts in Toronto and Ottawa on the strikes.

“I think it’s important to note that strikes in the construction industry have been rare,” Peterson said. “For plumbers and sheet metal workers, its been at least 30 years since there’s been a strike.”

Both Peterson and Maisoneuve, despite their different perspectives, agree one one thing – they don’t know how long the dispute will last. “We’ll have to wait and see if there is any common middle ground, where there can be agreement,” Peterson said.

Maisonneuve, meanwhile, says he doesn’t understand why the employers are holding out so strong on changes they’ve sought but never fought so hard for in many previous negotiating bargaining rounds.

“I think if they break us here at the 40 hours, no one’s going to be safe.  And I don’t think we’re going to break. The membership is clear. They’ve spoken.”

He said with the plumbers joining the sheet metal workers, construction projects will start feeling the pressure this week, as without the critical trades, other work cannot proceed properly.

Sheet Metal Workers’ Union Local 30 members on a solidarity bus trip to Niagara Falls on Wednesday (Local 30 Facebook page)

Peterson said he expects the strikes to be restricted to the two unions which have already walked off the job. Iron workers for example are still negotiating and one of their sections, which installs reinforcing rods (rebar), has a tentative agreement. The boilermakers also haven’t settled, but Peterson said he believes the negotiations for that group will be determined at the national level.

The Ministry of Labour Dispute Resolution Services have their facilitators involved and will get the trades back to the table as soon as possible, he said.

“In the past, if there is a strike, it’s been four to six weeks, that’s typical,” Peterson said. “The sheet metal workers have been out four weeks now. They’ve been meeting every week, and my understanding is they are making progress, but the key issues are still stumbling block.

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