Special to Ontario Construction News
It’s been an unusual year, to say the least, for workers in Ontario’s building trades.
Employment broke records, wage increases were far higher than the norm and strikes, typically few and far between, were nearly wall to wall at their peak in late May.
There were also a number of firsts, with, for example Hamilton local precast workers approving a deal rejected by Toronto counterparts.
Construction industry employment in Ontario roared past 600,000 for the first time in April before topping out at 614,000 in July when the jobless rate was just 2.1 per cent, according to Statistics Canada data.
Employment growth, however, along with the provincewide post-Covid building boom started to wane in the second half on slowing new construction investment. That was thanks largely to headwinds including pandemic induced supply chain disruptions, rising material costs, historic skilled trades worker shortages and interest rate hikes that have yet to subdue cost of living increases.
Adding to the inflationary pressures were wage demands by unionized construction workers. Against a backdrop of what they called a crisis in affordability, more than 50 three year collective agreements in the residential, ICI and heavy civil sectors expired at the end of April as mandated by Ontario regulations, with about 30 contracts ultimately settled in the residential sector alone.
The massive round of bargaining saw carpenters and plumbers among others reject proposed contract settlements recommended by their unions, saying the wage increases did not keep pace with inflation which was running near 7 per cent in March. ICI plumbers and pipefitters, for example, rejected a bargaining committee endorsed settlement offering a 12.5 per cent pay increase over three years.
The upshot was at least nine strikes that saw more than 43,000 construction workers off the job at the height of the disruptions, with multiple bargaining units within LiUNA Local 183 in the high-rise forming, house framing, self-levelling flooring sectors, as well as railing, tile, carpet and hardwood installers on strike in the GTA, central Ontario and parts of southern, eastern and southwestern Ontario to effectively shut down high-rise worksites. https://ontariopainting.contractors/multiple-bargaining-units-within-liuna-local-183-on-strike-impacting-construction-sites-across-ontario/
Ontario’s largest construction strike in at least 20 years saw roughly 15,000 residential labourers off the job along with 6,000 commercial operating engineers. 15,000 commercial, industrial and institutional carpenters and around 7,000 residential and commercial drywall workers.
Under the province’s construction bargaining rules all contracts across the industry were ultimately settled averaging total wage increase of between nine and 12 per cent over the terms of the deals, according to preliminary estimates provided by Richard Lyall, president of the Residential Construction Council of Ontario. That compares to an average gain of less than three per cent when the contacts were last renewed at a time when Canada’s annual CPI increase was within the central bank’s target range of 1 to three per cent.
ICI (industrial, commercial, institutional) settlements for example ranged from an 8.7 per total cent wage increase for electricians (with an escalator clause) up to 14.7 per cent over there years for steeplejacks and 15.1 per cent for precast erectors.
“I’ve never seen a more complicated set of circumstances than that which we’re facing now,” Lyall said at the time.
“Nobody wants to go on strike, Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario president, director of public affairs and innovation Mike Yorke added in a statement on May 5 announcing that carpenters turned down the union endorsed offer by a “huge margin.”
Our union hasn’t been on strike in the ICI sector for 34 years but our members, from one side of the province to the other, have now voted overwhelmingly to tell their employers that we want a fair deal.”
Yorke said union bargaining committees may have underestimated the anger of members over the ravages of inflation on their pay cheques, travel allowances and on the cost of parking.
“This is a very unique round of bargaining in the commercial sector,” he told Ontario Construction News.
“I don’t recall anything like this before where there are either multiple strikes or members rejecting the potential for ratification,” Yorke said.
“This truly is a different time.”