Reflections on construction industry bargaining in 2022

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By Mike MacLellan

Special to Ontario Construction News

Every three years most collective agreements in the construction industry come up for renewal. That’s right, in construction, most collective agreements are synchronized. They run May 1 to April 30 every three years, and most recently expired in 2022. This means that parties to those collective agreements have to bargain updated terms, conditions, and perhaps most prominently, wage rates.  And that is where CCPartners comes in.

For those of you who haven’t met us yet, Crawford Chondon & Partners LLP (CCPartners for short) is a dedicated firm of management-side labour and employment lawyers. We are #LawyersForEmployers as the kids say… We practice exclusively in workplace law for businesses in all industries, of all sizes, public and private sector, all across Canada. We also have a long and proud history of representing and advocating for our clients in the construction industry, many of whom are bound to collective agreements with any one (or more) of Ontario’s incredibly large and well-resourced trade unions.

Collective bargaining always presents challenges. Different parties have different goals, naturally. Management wants to run its business efficiently and economically. Unions want to secure the most favourable working conditions and highest compensation for their members. The 2022 round of bargaining in the construction industry was, at the risk of using an already over-used term, unprecedented.

The most obvious abnormality in this last round was the sheer number of work stoppages, particularly in the residential sector. The next may not be so obvious – members refusing to ratify deals recommended by their unions. It seemed that many trades workers were not satisfied in senior leadership, let alone management, and the tentative deals reached at the table. One possible influencer (ahem) of this trend was in fact social media. Like never before, individuals leveraged new media to urge their fellow members to hold out for better deals. And guess what? They held out and got better deals.

In reality, 2022 presented something of a perfect storm for collective bargaining. New construction developments particularly in residential and infrastructure require contracts to be completed and the government continues to invest in industry. At the same time, Ontario’s construction sector is dealing with an historic shortage of skilled trades workers, and inflation is raising the cost of everything and workers demanded a cost of living increase on their wages to keep up.

The results? Much higher than normal settlements. ICI (Industrial Commercial Institutional) settlements for example ranged from 8.7% wage increases for electricians (with an escalator clause) at the low end, up to 14.7% for steeplejacks.

If your construction business is bound to a collective agreement, you know the value of having proper legal representation to advocate for you at the bargaining table, or when the union has grievances. So what do non-union construction businesses need to know about Ontario’s labour relations regime?

In Ontario, a union can become the certified bargaining agent for all construction workers of an employer if they can show that 55% of the workers working on a particular day
supported a union. Membership evidence typically takes the form of cards signed by the employees. The union gets to submit its application on the day that it believes 55% of the present workers have signed cards. Let’s be very clear, that is not a vote of all employees.  A labour lawyer with experience in the construction industry can help your company respond to an application for certification – and by the way, you only have days to respond.

If you do get certified, the next step may be collective bargaining. The Labour Relations Act has procedural requirements for bargaining, and if the parties are at an impasse, the remaining terms will be arbitrated. However, in the construction industry there are a number of collective agreements already bargained through Ministerial designation or accreditation that will automatically apply to a newly-certified company.

And if your employees want to get out of the union? That same triennial timeline for contract renewals is also a two-month “open period” for employees to apply to decertify their bargaining agent.

At CCPartners we believe that all employers need access to competent, strategic, proactive, and business-minded legal advice. That might be just a little bit harder to come by for employers in the construction industry. Our team of experienced legal professionals are ready and able to help you navigate these tricky issues.

CCPartners: we’re Lawyers for Employers, and we’re happy to meet you!

Visit us online at www.ccpartners.ca

Mike MacLellan, Partner, Crawford Chondon & Partners LLC. Submitted feature.

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