As business manager of the Provincial Building Trades Council, I am deeply troubled by the ongoing push by Sault Ste. Marie City Council to pursue a change in the city’s status as a “construction employer.”
In my view, this move was made based on misinformation and without any substantive reasoning. If successful, such a move would consume huge legal costs shouldered by the citizens of that community, but more importantly, would denigrate the fair wages, job security, safety and training standards that construction workers in the Sault have fought to achieve over the course of generations.
The city is a construction employer because it had decided it was cheaper to hire carpenters and labourers directly and cut out the contractors those workers traditionally worked for. Those workers then decided to apply to certify the city so they would have the same wages and benefits as if they were working for their construction contractors, doing the very same work.
Thus, the City of Sault Ste. Marie became a construction employer. Sounds fair to me.
Now, the city is deciding, based on misinformation on potential savings, that it wants to try and avoid its legal obligations to the Sault Ste. Marie workers.
At a time when the general public is realizing that government can be a force for improving the quality of people’s work experience as evidenced by recent provincial labour law reforms and an increase to the minimum wage to help keep up with increased costs of living, the municipal government in the Sault appears to have chosen a path of weakening workers by increasing, instead of mitigating, their precariousness.
The real driving force behind city council’s decision is the pursuit of profits at the expense of worker training, wages and pensions.
If successful, a change in status would improve only one thing: the bottom line for certain contractors who don’t want to pay their workers fair wages and/or don’t want to compete with legitimate contractors on a level playing field.
Insofar as the City of Sault Ste. Marie chooses to perform construction work, it should remain designated as a construction employer.
Over the years, workers active on projects who built the community have chosen to be represented by the Carpenters’ and Labourers’ unions whose collective agreements include prevailing wages and benefits that were negotiated by those unions with contractors, including the City of Sault Ste. Marie, to support those workers and their families.
To all of a sudden have unscrupulous employers and their associations warn of “labour monopolies” and a “lack of competition” in the Sault’s construction industry in order to tear down obligations to workers, is nothing new. Such efforts demonstrate an eagerness by some contractors to test out what they can get away with.
Changing Sault Ste. Marie’s status as a construction employer to then be able to hire non-union contractors does nothing to save taxpayers’ money and everything to enhance those contractors’ profits.
This would not only negatively impact workers, but legitimate contractors as well; ones who do pay fair wages and who help pay for skills training which produces better health and safety outcomes.
Those like Ms. Karen Renkema, of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada, who are pushing the decertification campaign, would have the citizens of Sault Ste. Marie believe that if the city becomes a non-construction employer, this would somehow spur increased construction employment among local residents. Yet, a recent electrical/mechanical contract at a major hospital project in Brockville, won by an employer from Ms. Renkema’s organization, will have that employer bringing crews from out of town to perform the work, thereby totally ignoring the qualified but unemployed local tradespeople.
Pursuing a change in the Sault’s status as a construction employer may unleash an ugly race-to-the-bottom in that city’s construction industry, and given Ontario’s strengthening economy, the citizens of this province are expecting shared prosperity, not more inequality.
I am hopeful that the city leadership in Sault Ste. Marie will take the broader interests of construction workers into account when looking into this matter, and not merely rely on a narrative that wants to deregulate local government tendering to improve profits over people.
Patrick Dillon is the business manager and secretary treasurer of the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario.
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