From 2015 to 2017, UrbanToronto and its sister publication, SkyriseCities, ran an occasional series of articles under the heading Explainer. Each one took a concept from Urban Planning, Architecture, Construction, or other topics that often wind up in our publications, and presented an in depth look at it. It's time to revisit (and update where necessary) those articles for readers who are unfamiliar with them. While you may already know what some of these terms mean, others may be new to you. We are publishing or updating and republishing Explainer on a weekly basis.

This week's Explainer is new. While it's timely for Spring 2022 because of the current strikes, the bulk of the article is about how the system works here, and should apply over the long-term.

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Springtime rolled around… and suddenly, a sizeable portion of unionized construction trades in Ontario were refusing to work – why? Several strikes are currently underway in in both the residential and industrial/commercial/institutional (ICI) construction sectors, with tens of thousands of various trade workers currently off the job. 

Who exactly is on strike in Spring, 2022?

The first to strike were six trades of the Labourers' International Union of North America (LiUNA) Local 183's high-rise forming, self-levelling flooring, house framers, tile installers, railing installers, and carpet and hardwood installers who announced a strike on the first day of May, followed by Local 793, a union that represents operating engineers including crane and equipment rental, steel erection and mechanical installations, foundation, piling and caisson boring, excavation/earth moving, general contractor construction and surveying. Most recently going on strike was the Carpenters District Council of Ontario in the ICI sector. In total, approximately 30,000 workers are currently off the job – causing a major issue as the weather warms, and building season ramps up in Ontario.

Framer at work, image by Josh Olalde

This is an issue not only for the trades on strike, but because their work also affects other sectors' work, which often brings full construction sites to a halt. For example, if framing workers go on strike – as they are right now – then there won't be workers building housing structures, which makes the work that follows framing impossible to be done; schedules get thrown off, delaying completions. The domino effect is quickly compounded when multiple trades go on strike, like now, with drywall and tiling workers also on strike. Some work can still proceed by other trades, but that will eventually dry up as well if the strike is prolonged.

Why are these trades on strike in Spring, 2022?

Striking workers have noted a range of sector-specific issues that have stopped them from agreeing to the offers presented to them, but across the board many sectors highlighted issues that affect everyone, such as the rise in cost of living, and wanting compensation for the critical work they completed throughout the pandemic. 

Construction workers working through the pandemic, image by Rossella Porta

How does the bargaining work?

The trades who are striking are represented by labour unions. Richard Lyall, President of the Residential Construction Council of Ontario (RESCON), estimates approximately 30% of workers in the construction field in Ontario are unionized. Unions act as an intermediary between their members and the businesses that employ them, which in this case would be contractors. Naturally, the main purpose of these labour unions is to give workers the power to negotiate for more favourable working conditions, as well as other benefits through collective bargaining. 

Collective bargaining agreements are agreed upon by both the union and the contractors. Unions typically elect their leaders, who join a negotiating committee and go to the bargaining table with the contractors, who have their own bargaining committee. They are required to give each other notice that they would like to bargain a renewal agreement. This is followed by a scheduled meeting where both parties are present with their legal counsel, and share their demands or offers to the other side.

Construction workers on break, image by Steph Washi

As mandated by the Province, collective bargaining agreements in the three main sectors of the construction industry – the civil sector, ICI sector, and residential sectors — in the Greater Toronto Area must be renewed every three years, and updated as needed. 

In each of these sectors, there are all kinds of separate agreements. For context, the residential sector has over 30 agreements within it, resulting in over 30 different sets of negotiations. The ICI sector is similar. This results in many different groups bargaining their own agreements, which is complicated. When the interests of the two sides are not aligned, as Lyall asserts they often are not, the bargaining is more complicated, the economic uncertainty of today only placing more stress on the entire process. Despite this, there is a well-defined process for bargaining in Ontario, which consists of both sides laying everything that they want addressed out on the table, and having multiple meetings discussing the terms until terms are agreed upon by the negotiators. 

Civil sector workers on the job, image by Maarten Van den Heuvel

If the time on existing contracts runs out and common ground hasn't been found, strikes or lockouts can occur — strikes being when the workers refuse to work, lockouts being when the employer refuses to negotiate further. Strikes and lockouts are not the only options to a lack of settlement, though, and the unions and contractors can go to arbitration, or choose to continue working while continuing to bargain, with the new terms to be applied retroactively. In the residential sector, the Province has mandated a six week maximum that strikes or lockouts can continue, after which the work must resume and all outstanding matters go to binding arbitration overseen by an independent party. Agreements or arbitration in this case will cover to the end of April, 2025, at which point the process to settle the next three years of work to April, 2028 will have been successful and work will continue on, or there may be strikes again.

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