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Canadian Merit movement spread from west to east

Peter Caulfield
Canadian Merit movement spread from west to east

Canadian history reveals that most of the social, economic and political trends that have swept nationwide started in the populous urban centres of central Canada and spread outwards to the rest of the country.

However, that is not always the pattern and an example of that is open shop construction movement which began in British Columbia in the 1970s and gradually moved eastward from there.

"In the 1970s there was a lot of unrest in the building trades in B.C. when the NDP government (1972-75) brought in closed-shop legislation on public projects," said Independent Contractors and Businesses Association (ICBA) president Philip Hochstein.

"As a result, some construction employers in Trail and Vancouver Island started an employers’ council to lead the open shop movement in the province."

The movement grew quickly in size and influence, to the point that the offending legislation was overturned by the Social Credit government which succeeded the NDP.

Hochstein became executive director of the ICBA in the mid-1980s.

"My goal when I started was to change the ICBA from a movement to a business," he said. "We began marketing the organization to make it the leader of the open shop sector in B.C."

Hochstein says the ICBA has zero tolerance for misinformation about the open shop sector.

"Rather than cozy up to the NDP government like many other business groups (during the 1990s), we focused on challenging it," Hochstein said. "If their initiatives were bad for the province we said so, loudly and publicly."

Today, 40 years after ICBA was founded, open shop is a fact of life in B.C.

"Nobody criticizes the skills or competence of open shop workers," said Hochstein. "And there has been labor stability for many years here."

Looking ahead, ICBA is working on expanding its presence.

"At the end of 2015 we opened a regional office in Prince George," said Hochstein.

Open shop construction came to Alberta a decade after it had first appeared in B.C.

In 1986, 15 contractors got together and created Merit Contractors Association (Merit Alberta).

Merit Alberta created an industry-wide, portable benefit plan that covers their members’ employees and their families, and helped to set up Merit Canada’s College of Construction.

The college offers e-learning classes on a variety of construction topics, including an introduction to estimating; communication, negotiation and conflict resolution; and building information modeling (BIM).

"Since we were founded 30 years ago, we have grown to more than 1,400 members with more than 50,000 employees," said Merit Alberta president Malcolm Kirkland. "That makes us the largest open shop construction association in Canada."

Phil Besseling, president of Halton Sheet Metal Ltd and former president of Besseling Mechanical Ltd in Hamilton, Ont. is one of the founders of the open shop movement in Ontario.

"During the 1980s, there were few open shop contractors in Ontario, and we felt like we were getting beaten up by ‘the system’," Besseling said.

"In1990 we decided to form an open shop organization."

At that time, the Ontario construction industry was facing reduced productivity due to strikes and jurisdictional disputes between different trades working on the same work site.

The first association was called the United Independent Contractors’ Group of Ontario.

In 2002 the name was changed to the OpenShop Contractors Association. In 2009 the name was changed again, to the Merit OpenShop Contractors Association of Ontario.

Domenic Mattina, president of Mattina Mechanical Limited in Hamilton and former chairman of Merit Ontario, says the organization has grown to approximately 300 members.

"We have learned from our western counterparts and increased in number," Mattina said. "And we’re bringing in new members all the time."

Merit Contractors Association of Nova Scotia was founded in the 1990s after the Nova Scotia Supreme Court had ruled that union contractors could hire only union subcontractors. No open shop subs need apply.

Following the ruling, the newly-formed association lobbied Nova Scotia law makers for almost a year until the provincial government overturned the Supreme Court decision.

Today, says Merit Nova Scotia president Heather Cruickshanks, the association has 130 member companies with 1,300 employees.

"We’re becoming a watchdog for open shop construction in the province," said Cruickshanks.

"And open shop is only going to get bigger in Nova Scotia. Our goal is to double the membership by 2017."

Merit Nova Scotia is looking at making inroads in Cape Breton Island.

"The part of the Island around Sydney is heavily unionized," Cruickshanks said.

"But the region around Judique has fewer union members and many small businesses."

Quick Facts:

1975 – Open shop movement begins with ICBA in Trail, B.C.

1986 – fifteen contractors created Merit Contractors Association in Alberta

1990 – United Independent Contractors’ Group of Ontario was formed

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