A recent Ontario Construction Secretariat (OCS) advocacy paper challenging claims about closed tendering has been a lightning rod for critics on the topic but a welcome source of analysis for allies such as the Carpenters’ Union.
The punch and counterpunch on the topic and the paper had unfolded as Toronto city council prepares to make a $600-million decision on whether the City will remain a construction employer bound to nine ICI trade unions on June 18.
Titled Just Not Credible: Challenging Claims About Closed Tendering in Ontario, the paper is sharply critical of a report released last September by Cardus, a think tank closely linked to the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA) and its alternative-union partner the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC). In that report and previous ones, Cardus documented what it claims are escalated project costs that result when municipal project owners limit bids on construction projects to unionized contractors.
Cardus charged that closed municipal ICI bidding increases project costs an average of 15 per cent.
The OCS critique, released in May in anticipation of Toronto council’s consideration of the construction-employer issue, has spawned responses from CLAC and Cardus. CLAC wrote an open letter in which it argued, “The OCS demonstrates just how eager the benefactors of restricted tendering are to preserve their privileged position.”
OCS CEO Robert Bronk said in an interview the September Cardus report used “cherry-picked” statistics from sources that in some cases should be completely discredited, that the report could not withstand the rigours of peer-reviewed scholarly analysis, and that it’s self-serving in that it is plainly written to boost the case of CLAC and the PCA.
“If the City is going to make a decision, make a decision on what the facts are, not this false narrative that there is this tremendous savings,” said Bronk.
As a construction employer, Toronto is currently bound to collective agreements in the ICI sector with the carpenters, electricians, plumbers, painters, glaziers, bricklayers, sheet metal workers, asbestos workers and ironworkers unions. A City staff report stated that the City awarded $616 million in ICI contracts in 2018, most to unionized contractors and with all work undertaken by unionized building trades workers.
The Ford government’s Bill 66, the Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act, which received royal assent April 3, included reforms to the Labour Relations Act that rescinded construction-employer status for the City and a number of other public bodies unless the various municipal councils or boards opt out within three months. July 3 is the date by which Toronto council has to reach a decision.
Cardus work and economics program director Brian Dijkema, author of both the Cardus report and a June 5 rebuttal to the OCS document, dismissed the OCS paper as being “full of non-sequitors” and “a highly political document” that was timed to put doubt in the minds of Toronto councillors.
All we are saying is that they should have an opportunity to bid,
— Brian Dijkema
“I do think it is an attempt to befuddle and muddy what is a very clear question,” said Dijkema.
“How do they tender their projects? Do they tender in such a way that the entire breadth of qualified public contractors can work on that, or do they restrict their tendering to a very few based on one thing and one thing only, their membership in a particular type of union.”
The OCS paper argues the Cardus claim that closed-shop bidding increases the cost of municipal construction projects by 15 per cent or more is “just not credible” and the paper is “just a smokescreen” for the real objective which is to convince Toronto council to vote to become open shop for its ICI projects, benefiting the PCA.
A more credible number of possible savings, the OCS report said, is found in a 2008 City of Toronto report that suggested the upper estimate of the potential savings from terminating the City’s bargaining relationships would be only 1.7 per cent.
The OCS argues that municipalities that rescind their construction-employer status will see:
- significantly fewer young people in apprenticeships,
- a marked increase in work-related injuries on municipal projects,
- an increase in non-compliance with WSIB and CRA obligations, and
- a weakening or complete loss of equity programs that provide pathways into construction careers for under-represented groups.
Carpenters’ Local 27 included the OCS report as an information resource during a series of presentations to the City of Toronto executive committee meeting June 6.
“I think you have to challenge something when it is so inherently wrong about what goes on in the industry,” said Local 27 president Mike Yorke, explaining why the Carpenters’ contested the Cardus findings.
Dijkema denied the report was self-serving, in support of the PCA and CLAC, saying, “There is no guarantee that a CLAC or PCA contractor will win. All we are saying is that they should have an opportunity to bid.”
As for problems with Cardus’ research, Dijkema in turn said the OCS produced flawed papers, including one that purported to show that unionized workplaces were safer. That study had critical methodological errors, he said.
“When they say we are cherry-picking our research, it is not cherry-picking to point out universal consensus among academics and governments on the benefits of fair and open competition,” Dijkema said.