The City of Toronto’s executive committee has punted the decision on whether the City should retain its status as a construction employer to the next city council meeting without offering a recommendation.
The committee at its June 6 meeting was considering a recommendation from city manager Chris Murray that the City relinquish its status as a construction employer, thus throwing open bidding on municipal ICI projects to non-unionized employers and ending the special binding status nine ICI trades currently have with the City. Mayor John Tory argued deputations and staff responses at the meeting left too many unanswered questions on the issue.
The staff report prepared for the committee highlighted the stakes involved in the issue – in 2018, the City awarded $616 million in ICI contracts. All of that work was undertaken by unionized building trades workers.
After two hours of presentations, questions and debate that highlighted the sharp divide between unionized and non-unionized employers and building trades, Tory proposed the committee make no recommendation on the issue and that city staff undertake research on a handful of issues to help city council make a final decision at its June 18 meeting.
“There aren’t any simple answers to this,” Tory said in explaining his motion. “I am going to propose that we forward the item to city council without recommendation but that we take advantage of the time between now and then to ask our city manager and our city staff to do a number of additional pieces of work that might help us get closer to an answer that makes sense.”
As a construction employer, Toronto is currently bound to nine province-wide collective agreements in the ICI sector. The collective agreements are with the carpenters, electricians, plumbers, painters, glaziers, bricklayers, sheet metal workers, asbestos workers and ironworkers unions.
The provincial government’s Bill 66, the Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act, which received royal assent April 3, rescinded construction-employer status for a broad range of public entities including the City of Toronto unless the various municipal councils or boards opt out within a prescribed three-month period, ending July 3.
The Toronto staff report recommended council “take no action,” thus designating the City of Toronto as a non-construction employer.
The delegations pitted trade union supporters – there were five representatives of the Carpenters’ Local 27 alone – against open-shop supporters and alternative union advocates such as the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA) and the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC).
Local 27 president Mike Yorke told the executive committee the current relationship between his union and the City delivered high-quality work under safe working conditions, and that changing the status quo would create significant uncertainty. The Carpenters’ he said, were proud of their record of supporting community benefits, undertaking outreach with groups such as youth and retired soldiers and training thousands of workers.
“We don’t know what can happen if you choose to not opt out of Bill 66,” he told the councillors. “A lot of things are fully up in the air, driving concerns from individuals and the union.”
Sean Reid, the PCA’s vice-president and Ontario regional director, framed the issue as one of fairness.
“Why should only workers in select unions be allow to work on city projects while workers in other unions or non-unionized workers are shut out,” he said.
The staff report noted there are various studies that indicate increasing competition in municipal procurement has the potential to lower costs. One notable report, the European Study, estimated savings could be in the 2 per-cent to 10-per-cent range, while a study by Cardus, a Christian research group supportive of the PCA and CLAC, cited a range of savings between 8 per cent and 40 per cent.
The City’s staff report noted, “It is unclear how much increased competition the City will receive on its construction tenders as a result of becoming a non-construction employer and consequently it is not possible to determine with any certainty what, if any, savings will result.”
City manager Chris Murray stated in the report, “The City stands to gain significant commercial maneuverability by becoming a non-construction employer” but warned, “initially there will likely be substantial uncertainty and also protracted litigation related to the legislation.”
If the City assumes the status as a non-construction employer, the City’s Fair Wage policy would ensure construction workers employed on City jobs will continue to receive wages on a par with unionized trades workers, the report noted, given that “the Fair Wage rates in many cases align with collective agreement wage rates in the construction industry.”
Tory’s motion, accepted unanimously by the committee, called for more information on the number of unionized contractors versus non-unionized contractors in the ICI sector, asked staff to discuss how community benefits goals could be met if the City becomes a non-union contractor, requested information comparing training programs between the sectors and asked for more precise data on potential cost savings.