Two Ontario contractors associations are calling for reforms to provincial labour legislation to extend the length of collective agreements in the ICI sector, shorten strikes and establish a new designation for smaller projects with potentially lower wages for unionized workers.
The reforms, they say, would enable the unionized ICI sector to bid and work more competitively. The General Contractors’ Association of Toronto (GCAT) and the Golden Horseshoe General Contractors Association (GHGCA) argue in a paper that many measures in Ontario’s Labour Relations Act (OLRA) are 40 years old and do not meet the needs of contractors or employers in an increasingly complex and competitive sector.
The paper, titled Planning for Ontario’s Building Boom: Ontario’s Construction Industry and the Need to Reform the Labour Relations Act, was released Aug. 1. Other recommendations included the expansion of project agreements and an increase in the roster of subcontractors that can be tapped in smaller jurisdictions where there’s a lack of qualified union subcontractors.
GCAT executive director Jim Vlahos said the associations are staunch supporters of the traditional building trades and have been working with them in developing the proposed reforms: “I don’t believe it’s possible for us to advance any of these items to government without the support of the building trades.”
The paper said the “stagnation” of the ICI sector “has fettered the growth of the unionized sector of the ICI construction industry.”
Unionized contractors have been increasingly cut out of projects involving public libraries, local sports facilities, small retail facilities, schools, fire halls and police stations, the report stated. Non-union contractors with greater flexibility in managing trades are getting a lot of the work.
In the proposed new “Special Institutional and Commercial” sector, the relevant collective agreements would continue to be trade based, but with “flexible hours of work, mobility of manpower and base wage rates below the current ICI wages.”
“A lot of the unionized legislation is designed to support contractors and more major projects. So on smaller projects, with unionized contractors, the legislation makes it more difficult to operate,” explained Tom Kemp, president of Kemp Construction of Hamilton, a GHGCA member.
“Honestly, the wage differential is not as big a problem as the ability to be flexible on the worksite…We know that the unions recognize this issue as well.”
The paper said workers employed in the new sector would be dedicated to the sector, “thereby creating a workforce which has a continuum of work, steady wages and benefits and the premier training and safety programs.”
Vlahos, a former adviser with the Carpenters’ union, said the goals of the report’s six recommendations are to create competitiveness and certainty. By increasing the length of ICI agreements to four years from three and reducing the length of strikes to a maximum of a month-and-a-half followed by arbitration, matching the period permitted in some residential agreements, he said, workers and employers will have another year’s worth of certainty.
“And they don’t have to worry about a potential work stoppage or any issue relative to what they’ll be earning for that year,” said Vlahos of the workers.
The negotiating season of 2022 was damaging to the sector with numerous rolling strikes compounding problems for contractors, said Jason Ball, president of Ball Construction of Kitchener, also a GHGCA member.
“Because of that, we lost this idea of certainty,” said Ball. “In the residential sector, if you start a strike May 1, you have to be back at work on June 16. If you start a strike June 14, you still have to be back on June 16.”
The report notes currently the OLRA provides for the creation of project agreements in circumstances in which the project is “economically significant.” Only union trades can be used and there can be no strike or lockout.
But with smaller government projects, the report notes, “These projects have also been essentially lost to the small and medium-sized contractors.”
Thus, it was recommended that on all government projects having a value in excess of $5 million, project agreements be permitted and “only members of the trade union performing the work may be employed on such projects.”
Vlahos admitted contractor groups such as the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA), whose members have had success in smaller projects such as those targeted by the proposed new designation, had not been consulted in preparation of the report. They are competitors, Kemp said.
“But we’re trying to make the whole industry more competitive,” Kemp said.
Karen Renkema, Ontario-based vice-president with the PCA, commented, “We would support anything that would provide more competition, more flexibility, more ability for everybody to work together.
“Where our concerns may be is if there’s legislative measures put in place that would add any type of barriers to our members competing.”
The Ontario Building Trades could not be reached for comment before deadline.
A representative of LIUNA said he would not comment on the recommendations given he had not yet received instructions from top executives. Bob Bronk, CEO of the Ontario Construction Secretariat, said the OCS board had not yet met to discuss the recommendations.
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