Ontario’s unionized carpenters joined their colleagues from across the continent in days of action to raise awareness of the underground construction economy and tax fraud recently.
The events also took advantage of the opportunity to score points on the benefits of municipal collective agreements at the same time.
The campaign, organized by the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, supported awareness programs across North America, with events held in 70 cities April 13 to 15, explained Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario president Mike Yorke.
Local protests and lobbying efforts started in Toronto with a rally at a non-unionized jobsite at 6:30 a.m on April 15.
But the local Carpenters’ efforts to fight the effects of Bill 66, which upon receiving royal asset April 3 effectively dissolved the union’s special status in collective agreements with a number of public entities including the Region of Waterloo and the City of Toronto, was a subtext all day long in Ontario, Yorke admitted.
Bill 66, the Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act, eliminated a mechanism through which municipalities and other public bodies could be recognized as construction employers and possibly bound to specific building trade unions.
“It should be clear, it is not a direct response to Bill 66,” said Yorke of the days of action campaign. “The days of action is driven by the United Brotherhood of Carpenters across North America and every local area including Toronto stepped up to the plate and made this about tax fraud in the construction industry.
“It just so happens, in the Ontario context, we have an Ontario government which put forward Bill 66 which looks to dismantle collective agreements. The argument of the Carpenters’ is, in terms of a bulwark against increasing tax fraud and the underground economy, one of the best policies a city can have is a collective agreement with the construction sector.”
The Carpenters’ have had a fruitful relationship with the City of Toronto for generations, Yorke said — at least 50 years — with the union participating in numerous programs benefiting the city including programs promoting women, young people and new Canadians in the building trades, an initiative supporting individuals at risk and a partnership with Toronto Community Employment Services supporting jobs at projects in Regent Park. Coming up is a new craft program to develop new apprentices.
The city, meanwhile, has developed numerous progressive work policies such as using collective agreements for construction work and the establishment of a Fair Wage Office and Fair Wage Policy, Yorke said.
Bill 66 gave public entities 90 days to decide if they want to continue existing collective agreements, meaning there is urgency to the Carpenters’ lobbying efforts.
“That is going to be part of our overall efforts on how Bill 66 plays out at the city level now,” Yorke explained. “We do believe that the province has passed the buck down to the city level.
“What we are saying is, we are taking the positive approach that the City of Toronto has, and asking why would you take a negative approach that allows the underground economy and opens the door to potentially more tax fraud.”
The Carpenters’ quoted a recent Prism Economics and Analysis report indicating tax fraud in the construction industry resulted in revenue losses to governments and government agencies of $1.8- to $3.1 billion annually between 2013-2017 in Ontario.
“We are not saying every non-union contractor is engaged in tax fraud,” said Yorke. “However, we are saying, we need to put in place mechanisms that restrict the growth.”
Other events on April 15 included a news conference at Toronto City Hall, presence at the Canadian Revenue Agency and Waterloo Region offices and a meeting with federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau.
Next steps will include continued lobbying of municipal officials and education efforts and a potential court challenge to Bill 66 that would argue labour rights were ignored when employers were given the sole authority to determine whether their places of employment should be unionized, Yorke said.