Toronto’s leaders stood defiantly in June against an
anti-union attempt by Ontario’s Conservative Party to reclassify the city’s relationship
with its construction workforce.
In doing so, city leaders reinforced and expanded their commitment to working people and voted overwhelmingly to maintain longstanding relationships with the IBEW and other construction trades.
“This decision will help ensure Toronto’s continued high safety standards,” said Toronto Local 353 Business Manager Steven Martin. “It keeps at bay the risk to the public that improperly trained workers would have a hand in the construction of the city’s public works projects.”
Historically, the Ontario municipalities of Toronto, Hamilton, Waterloo and Sault Ste. Marie held agreements that permitted them, if they wished, to only accept bids on publicly funded infrastructure projects from union contractors. This made those municipalities construction employers under provincial law.
But since Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative party came to power in 2018, lawmakers in the province have prioritised passage of a number of anti-worker measures. In December, Ford introduced Bill 66, an omnibus measure that sought to repeal a number of pro-worker provincial laws — for example, shifting overtime rules in favor of employers.
For members of the IBEW and the other construction trades, perhaps more worrying was the bill’s call to reclassify those four municipalities as non-construction employers and to cancel their long-held agreements with trades organisations, thus freeing any given contractor, union or nonunion, to bid on publicly funded projects.
“Workers were left out of the consultation process entirely and ignored” as Bill 66 was being crafted, Martin said.
Nevertheless, activists from the IBEW and other labour organizations loudly made their objections known. In March, the Ford administration agreed to an amendment giving the leaders of those municipalities the freedom to vote in favor of remaining construction employers and maintaining their existing agreements.
But they were given just three months from the bill receiving royal assent to do so — a July 3 deadline.
The push to take away municipalities’ construction employer status was influenced by claims from Ford’s anti-union allies that work performed by union workers was costing municipalities too much money.
“Anti-union forces have been working for a number of years in the cities of Hamilton, Sault Ste. Marie, Waterloo and Toronto,” said First District International Vice President Tom Reid, “to elect politicians who buy into their desire to remove the construction employer status for those municipalities, selling them bogus claims of substantial cost savings.”
But when staffers for Toronto’s city councillors took a closer look at those claims, they determined that if the city were to become a non-construction employer and end its relationships with the IBEW and eight other unions, the city’s savings would be nominal, at best.
With that in mind, Toronto’s councillors voted 20-4 to hold on to the city’s status as a construction employer. Further, they added a tenth union, LiUNA, to their preferred list.
In a statement, the IBEW Construction Council of Ontario applauded Toronto’s decision, saying that the move will ensure “a continued relationship that allows our highly skilled electricians to continue to deliver professional and safe service that benefits both the public and workers.”
Regrettably, the leaders of Hamilton, Sault Ste. Marie and Waterloo voted Ford’s way. In those cities, unionised construction workers have had their fairly negotiated agreements with the local governments essentially erased.
Worse, nonunion contractors in those places can now bid on public projects classifying workers as “subcontractors,” paying rock-bottom wages with limited benefits — if any. And thanks to Bill 66, future public project bids from such contractors almost certainly will come in lower than the fair and equitable bids submitted by union employers.
But there remains a question about whether Bill 66 is even legal. Ontario’s Supreme Court has upheld the part of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms stating that the rights of workers to determine union representation belong in the hands of workers, and activists in the construction trades believe that a case can be successfully made that Bill 66’s construction employer amendment restricts that right.
“We’re willing to take a charter challenge to the Supreme Court, if necessary,” Martin said.
Meanwhile, IBEW members are continuing to protest Bill 66’s implementation by holding informational rallies alongside our allies in Ontario’s other building trades and labour organizations.
“Our struggles in Ontario should send a message to all IBEW members in every province and territory about how we should be aware of who we are supporting and electing at each level of government,” Reid said. “Clearly, electing men and women who aren’t willing to back our best interests can result in unfortunate consequences for all working people.”