The second half of March is shaping up to be significant for Ontario’s ICI building trades unions and their employers as negotiators for many of the larger trades and unionized contractors get set to hunker down on contract negotiations.
Ontario’s unionized electricians and their corresponding employers in the ICI sector were first out of the gate to reach collective agreements this negotiating season. There were relatively few clashes reported as bargaining teams hammered out provincial and local deals that are targeted to match the projected rate of inflation over the next three years and even the potentially contentious issue of apprenticeship ratios not proving to be a major stumbling block.
The unionized ICI sector negotiates every three years in Ontario, with March 1 marking the start of open season for negotiations, possible raids and current contracts expiring April 30.
“Electrical sets the tone,” said Construction Employers Coordinating Council of Ontario (CECCO) executive director Wayne Peterson, adding the harmonious negotiations in the electrical sector were “a good sign” and that he did not project work stoppages in any of the other 24 trades.
Advanced-stage meetings are coming up in the third and fourth weeks of March involving such major trades as the carpenters, labourers, sheet metal workers and pipefitters, Peterson said.
Negotiators for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Construction Council of Ontario (IBEW-CCO) and the Electrical Contractors Association of Ontario (ECAO) finalized 14 separate agreements on Feb. 13, with 17,000 unionized workers handed a raise of $4.05 per hour over the next three years, a hike of six per cent over current wages, averaging out to two per cent per year. The contracts cover the province-wide unionized electrical ICI sector, 11 regional IBEW locals, transmission workers and communications workers.
“It’s another three years of peace,” said John Grimshaw, IBEW-CCO secretary treasurer. “That goes a long way with clients. It is pretty well known in construction that electricians don’t go on strike. It doesn’t mean we won’t or we can’t but generally speaking the process has served us well on both sides.”
Grimshaw and Graeme Aitken and Jodi Travers of the ECAO characterized the negotiations as cordial with current market conditions clearly top of mind, lessons on collaboration having been learned from past seasons and a decision to use mediators in eight of the local negotiations helping to keep the process on track.
“Overall it was positive, with healthy debate, but it was more professional than the previous round, with mutual respect,” said Travers, the ECAO labour relations manager.
“We found it was a far more collaborative approach all around the table,” said ECAO executive director Aitken. “People were concerned with the industry itself, about increasing market share, remaining competitive, all the things that industry partners would want us to keep in mind.”
Grimshaw said with “duelling economists” not far apart on market and inflation projections, monetary issues were settled with dispatch.
“From my members’ perspective, everyone wants to see its employees properly compensated,” Aitken said. “The concern was the market.”
There was never any chance of a work stoppage with other mechanisms such as early settlement on an initial Joint Proposal ensuring certainty in the process, said Aitken.
Despite the smoothness of the electrical negotiations, that did not mean there were not “sticky issues,” Aitken said, with lots of local issues requiring solutions geared to those markets.
Points of contention besides apprenticeship ratios included hours in a work week, overtime rates, the need for flexibility in markets with specific types of builds such as strip malls, nailing down details of a post-negotiation wage adjustment (in the event that subsequent deals result in higher wages than the electricians got), and securing bargaining rights to avoid “double breasting,” Aitken and Grimshaw alternately itemized.
They negotiated at local levels some differences to the ratio, depending on the sector and the complexity of jobs
— Graeme Aitken
Electrical Contractors Association of Ontario
That last item, to ensure individual contractors do not attempt to run both unionized and non-unionized shops, was especially important to the IBEW, Grimshaw said.
“Our biggest issue was we wanted bargaining rights protective language,” he said. “We wanted them to acknowledge they were bound to us and in the event of any legislative changes they would not be allowed to double breast.”
There was a move to a longer work week in select markets, Grimshaw noted, with some locals agreeing to work 40 hours a week in response to pleas from local contractors.
As for apprenticeship ratios, Peterson said there are diverging legal opinions on whether trades can contract out of the new provisions introduced by the Doug Ford government establishing a 1:1 ratio across the board, with implementation regulations pending. Aitken noted some local negotiations did not include apprenticeship ratios, which the parties took to mean the default ratio of 1:1 will be in effect. But others sought alternative arrangements.
“Aside from the fact that it is the law, it is recognized in the industry that 1:1 is appropriate, however, knowing the industry itself and parts of the sector, there are areas where 1:1 is not helpful for mentoring or for safety,” Aitken said. “They negotiated at local levels some differences to the ratio, depending on the sector and the complexity of jobs, those kind of things.”
Grimshaw characterized the local solutions on the issue as containing “wording that addressed legislative changes but at same time it prevented having the market flooded with apprentices and having a bunch of journeymen out of work because of it.”