Toronto mayoral candidate Brad Bradford’s new proposal to open up bidding on city construction projects has been sharply criticized by the Carpenters’ and Labourers’ unions in Ontario.
Bradford, one of the top six contenders for the mayor’s job according to polls, announced May 16 he would work to end the monopoly enjoyed by 10 traditional construction trades on city projects.
Speaking on a jobsite off Danforth Avenue, the urban planner and current city councillor said the move to open bidding would save Toronto taxpayers hundreds of millions in costs through increased competition and would expand the roster of contractors allowed to bid on projects.
Mark Lewis, general counsel for the Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario, said the debate has been long settled following a decisive vote by city council in 2019.
“We’re obviously disappointed that a candidate in the mayoralty election would seek to reopen a debate that was extensively discussed and settled in 2019,” said Lewis. “As the Carpenters’ union we’re committed to our collective agreement with the City of Toronto and to ensuring that construction in the City of Toronto by the City of Toronto is done under fair terms and conditions on the safest work sites and with union labour.”
Nine building trades unions were already signatories to collective agreements with the city when in 2019 the Doug Ford government introduced reforms to the Labour Relations Act through Bill 66 that allowed municipalities to opt out of such deals. Current mayoral candidate Ana Bailao led the fight to maintain the building trades’ agreements and LIUNA was added to the roster during the final debates, though it only concluded its collective agreement with the city earlier this year.
Sean McFarling, general counsel for the LIUNA Ontario Provincial District Council, said Bradford’s campaign promise is beyond the jurisdiction of the municipality, given that it would require the provincial government to retable the legislation that allowed municipalities to opt out of Bill 66 in 2019.
“Being bound to the provincial ICI agreements is not a procurement policy, it’s a legally binding obligation,” said McFarling. “The fact that the city can’t do this without provincial legislation is buried at the end of their press release.”
Bradford said every municipality that has gone from closed to open tendering has seen significant reductions in costs. A 2021 report found the Region of Waterloo and City of Hamilton experienced savings of between 14 and 21 per cent for construction contracts under a more competitive system.
“What does that mean here in Toronto?” asked the candidate. “That would mean over $200 million would be saved every year so that we can build more and better maintain our current infrastructure and help close the budget gap.”
Bradford said the closed tendering process is “bad for taxpayers, bad for accountability and a disaster for our budget. The result? You pay more and there are fewer workers available to do the work.”
Supporting Bradford’s announcement at the Tribute Communities condo project site were Stephen Hamilton, director of public affairs (Ontario) for the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada, and Michael Gallardo, CEO of Merit Ontario. Hamilton said Toronto’s fair wage policy would ensure all workers employed on city projects would earn the prevailing building trades union wages.
Lewis said the hole in that argument is that city inspectors would not be able to enforce the policy.
“Are they actually going to go and complain to their employer, knowing that their next project is not going to be a City of Toronto project?” he said, referring to workers who are not protected by their unions. “Employment in the construction industry is precarious.”
In addition to Bailao, frontrunners Olivia Chow and Josh Matlow recently said they supported the current ICI collective agreements as structured. The vote in 2019 was 20- to 4 to support the status quo.
But Bradford said times have changed.
“We are facing a $1.5-billion budget shortfall,” he said. “That’s a different context than it was back in 2019. This is a fiscal reality of the world that we’re living in right now.”
Bradford rejected suggestions the traditional building trades work more safely and are better trained, noting all contractors and workers on Toronto jobs would have Infrastructure Health and Safety Association Certificate of Recognition (COR) certification.
Hamilton said there were savings on City of Hamilton and Region of Waterloo jobs because “everyone sharpened their pencils and lowered their bids because they found cost savings, but it’s not through wages.
“Wages remained the same or higher. We’re in a very competitive space. So no, there’s always more innovation and competition.”
The byelection to replace former mayor John Tory is June 26.