Canada’s construction industry is grappling with labor trouble this spring, with strikes in Ontario and Prince Edward Island and unusually protracted contract negotiations.

Hundreds of sheet metal workers and roofers, possibly several thousand, walked off the job in Ontario on May 6 after their union, the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) in Canada called a strike, joining more than 130 plumbers, welders and pipefitters who went on strike in PEI the week before.

Negotiations between contractors and other unions have also dragged out longer than they typically do during bargaining season in Ontario, which extends from the beginning of March to the end of April.

Wayne Peterson, executive director of the Construction Employers Coordinating Council of Ontario, said talks are “proceeding at a snail’s pace. I have never seen it proceeding this slowly before.”

A top union official said protracted talks could affect some projects in Ontario’s booming construction sector, with billions of dollars in new hospitals, transit lines, malls and schools underway,

“If it starts to drag out, at some point projects have to slow down or come to a halt,” said Patrick Dillon, business manager and secretary Treasurer of the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario

Hours Dispute

While PEI construction union workers are demanding wage increases that are above the rate of inflation, pay doesn’t appear to be a major sticking point in Ontario.

Union electrical workers (IBEW) in Ontario paved the way in terms of wage negotiations, winning a 6% increase over three years. At least five other unions have since inked deals with similar pay hikes, Peterson said.

Rather, a major issue has been a proposal by contractors in Ontario and Alberta to adjust apprentice ratios and extend the work week from 36 hours to 40.

Contractors are pushing for a longer work week as they scramble to keep up with a booming market and project completion pressure from project owners, Peterson said.

Owners now demand that projects that have typically taken two years to finish be done in a year and a half or less, he said.

“The construction schedule outpaces the engineering," Peterson said.  "You are bidding from incomplete drawings.”

Dillon, the Ontario union official, agrees that the proposal to lengthen the workweek to 40 hours – which would also raise the bar before overtime kicks in – is a major issue for the sheet metal workers and other unions.

“The barrier there seems to be major contract language issues that were brought to the table by the employers,” Dillon said.

But he said construction unions in Ontario and beyond have no plans to change that schedule, having won the right to the 36-hour workweek, four nine-hour days, following a hard-fought four month-long strike in 1969.

Holding Firm

So far, trade unions in the province have held firm against this proposal, with the electrical workers’ union winning pay increases while not agreeing to language changes in their contracts.

In their push for a 40-hour work week in Alberta, contactors contend they need more flexibility in the midst of a construction slowdown caused by difficulties in the province’s heavily oil-based economy, Dillon said.

But union officials claim Ontario's booming economy and construction market counter that.

“It certainly isn’t an argument for Ontario when we are at peak work and (yet) the same kinds of issues are on the table,” Dillon said.

There are also disputes over other contract issues.

Contractors are looking for a larger say in picking individual workers when they hire for a particular job at the union hall. Currently, contractors and unions have a roughly 50/50 say in who gets hired, with union picks based on seniority and time out of work, Dillon sand.

Labor Mobility

Peterson said construction companies also seek greater labor mobility, the ability to move crews to different jobs across the province that may cross jurisdictional lines.

Still, the strike action in Ontario is somewhat unusual, Dillon said, with labor disturbances infrequent in recent years.

One major factor has been the IBEW's decision, starting in the early 1990s, to consider submitting disagreements to arbitration instead of going on strike.

Workers then vote on a preferred settlement approach–a strike or arbitration.

“The number of [work] hours lost has been dramatically reduced,” Dillon said. He added that despite the sheet metal workers strike,  “labor relations across the trades is actually very good across Ontario.”  

According to local media reports, striking carpenters ratified a tentative agreement only last week, but operating engineers, laborers, demolition workers and road workers, had not by ENR press time.