Ontario’s recent Progressive Conservative government seeks to break what it says is a union monopoly on public works projects in the province’s largest cities. Premier Doug Ford backs a bill to close what critics call a provincial legal “loophole” that classifies local governments and other public entities as construction contractors.

Critics say the carpenters and other building trades take advantage of the loophole by recruiting a few municipal employees in each jurisdiction. Under Ontario law, this makes Toronto, Hamilton, Sault Ste. Marie and the Region of Waterloo union employers—blocking nonunion and some union firms from bidding on major infrastructure projects. The result has been as much as $1.8 billion in new public works projects each year with bids limited to contractors backed by a few trade unions, says Cardus, a Hamilton think tank. Restrictions have halved the number of bidders and driven up project costs in Toronto and other cities, its report contends.

Bill 66 would eliminate the cities’ construction employer classification, and that of universities, hospitals and schools also defined as construction contractors required to hire union only. “You have contractor and tradespeople … who pay taxes into their municipalities but who can’t work on public infrastructure projects because they don’t hold the right union card or hold no union card at all,” says Sean Reid, a vice president of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada. Members are linked to unions other than those in the building trades council. Chris Buckley, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, which represents 54 unions and 1 million workers, blasted the proposal in a statement as a worker safety risk and a violation of collective bargaining.