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February 2015

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Ontario Local Organizes Residential Market

The 2008 global recession hit manufacturing hard, and Windsor, Ontario — historically the center of Canada's auto industry — took the brunt of the province's manufacturing job losses.

Today, even as other parts of Canada boom, Windsor's economy is still in the doldrums. In December, CBC News reported that Windsor's jobless rate rose to 9 percent, nearly three points higher than the national rate.

"Ford had a foundry here, it's gone," said Windsor Local 773 Business Manager Karl Lovett. "There was a Chrysler van plant, it's gone too."

The one bright spot construction-wise is residential. Windsor's low real estate prices, proximity to major transportation hubs and relatively mild winters compared to most parts of Canada (Windsor is south of Detroit) has made the area an increasingly attractive locale for retirees.

The problem: IBEW contractors were doing 5 percent of the work. Lovett, who worked as an organizer before becoming business manager in 2012, said that they had to break into the market if they wanted to grow.

So Local 773 made organizing all of the city's residential contractors their priority.

Returns on residential construction are low, so unless the IBEW organized the majority of the market, it would be easy for the remaining nonunion contractors to make the union ones uncompetitive by underbidding on projects.

"It was a race to the bottom with competing bids constantly undercutting one another, with employees often having to suffer the consequences with reduced wages, no benefits or medical coverage, overtime hours without overtime pay and missing vacation pay," Local 773 Regional Organizer Joe Logan wrote in the First District newsletter.

Organizers hit worksites at all the major housing contractors throughout the greater Windsor area, signing up members in a bottom-up effort.

"We've got the most aggressive, competitive residential wage package in Canada and that gave us the opportunity to enter a market that we had no grasp of," Lovett said.

The local soon had enough cards to petition the Ontario Labour Board for automatic union recognition at three of the city's' biggest contractors, including Galaxy Electrical Contractors and Alarm Systems Ltd., which wired 350 homes in the last year.

"I always feared the IBEW and any involvement with them," said Galaxy chief executive Frank Nacci. "Then came the dreadful day which all nonunion contractors fear — I was served with an application for certification by the IBEW."

Local 773 had the numbers to force certification under the province's card-check recognition law, but Lovett didn't want to start off his relationship with a legal fight.

"I sat down with the employers one-on-one and told them, 'we want to work with you so it benefits everybody,'" he said. "'And if it doesn't work out, I'll let you out of the agreement.'"

Nacci, who was resistant at first, now says his partnership with the IBEW has been great for him and his company.

"All fears I had of the union have been swept away and my company has grown by 25 percent," he said.

Nacci says having a skilled and experienced workforce ready to go is one of the best things about working with the IBEW.

To boost Local 773's residential efforts, Lovett recently brought in one of Galaxy's top officials to teach residential wiring for apprentices.

Members are now working on residential projects throughout southern Ontario.

"In 2012, we had 5 percent of the market," Lovett said. "Now we're doing 90 percent of the work."