July 17, 2012

Ontario government, building trades slam open tendering proposal as “race to the bottom”

A recent Ontario Progressive Conservative party labour reform proposal received praise from one construction union but officials from government and the building trades have dismissed it as a “race to the bottom” approach.

Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak recently published a paper titled Paths to Prosperity: A New Vision for Labour Reform, which criticizes the practice of restricting contracting to employers who have signed collective agreements with specific unions.

“As a basic principle, all companies should be allowed to bid on government contracts,” the paper states, but adds that some organizations, including the cities of Toronto and Hamilton, Hydro One, Ontario Power Generation and the Toronto District School Board, have “monopolistic bidding conditions.”

It is not just open shop contractors who are losing opportunities to bid, says Andrew Regnerus, provincial construction coordinator for the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC).

Although CLAC members employed by Strabag Inc. are working on a large sewer project northeast of Toronto, CLAC shops are forbidden from bidding on many public construction contracts elsewhere in the province.

“Any carpentry work that is let out by the City of Hamilton must be performed by members of the carpenters’ union in the employment of a contractor who is signatory to the carpenters’ union,” Regnerus said.

“That means the other three-quarters of the carpenters who live in Hamilton and pay property taxes in Hamilton, can’t earn their property taxes back in wages because they don’t belong to the right union.”

But Ucal Powell, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Carpenters District Council of Ontario, defends the relationship his union has with the city.

“Since certifying that municipality, Carpenters Union Local 18 and a wide variety of unionized contractors have been providing Hamilton with superior craftsmanship and a construction product that is second-to-none,” Powell stated in an e-mail to DCN.

CLAC shops are also unable to bid on Toronto Transit Commission construction projects, Regnerus added.

The TTC tendering restrictions have come under fire from PC labour critic Randy Hillier, the Member of Provincial Parliament for Lanark, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington.

“There’s nothing legally binding (the TTC) to this closed tendering policy, but for the sake of labour peace or appeasement, they voluntarily do a closed tendering system,” Hillier said in an interview.

“They insert that clause into their tenders. You have to be part of the Building Trades council and have to be unionized. Any non-union or CLAC (employers) are expressly forbidden.”

But there are valid reasons for such clauses, said Patrick Dillon, business manager for the Provincial Building & Construction Trades Council of Ontario.

“Organizations, whether they be cities or subsets of cities such as the TTC, have a responsibility to make sure that their projects are done as safely as possible, with qualified trades people and qualified contractors,” he said, adding such a policy was not in place in 1960 at the time of the Hogg’s Hollow incident, when five construction workers died in a fire in a Toronto watermain tunnel.

Asked whether the Ontario government disagrees with the principle of open tendering, a spokesperson for Labour Minister Linda Jeffrey stated in an e-mail that the government has “no comment on the itemized details of this paper.” But, he wrote, that the paper shows a contrast between Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty’s “fair and balanced approach to labour relations and the divide and conquer, race to the bottom approach” of the PC Party.

“To me, a race to the bottom is when you waste money,” Hillier said. “It’s never a bad thing when taxpayers get greater value for their money, just as you would or I would for getting the roof put on our house. Do we go to the contractor who charges us $20,000 when there are other qualified contractors who will do it for $5,000?”

Stephen Sell, president of the Ontario Electrical League, noted there are qualifications that electricians need to have in order to get their licences.

“It’s not just a race to the bottom,” Sell said.

“There are other ways of ensuring that the people you are hiring are qualified to do it. With government projects, there is a pre-qualification process.”

The PC party white paper also calls for the government to let private insurance firms compete with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, to restore secret ballots in union certifications, to force unions to disclose financial statements and to end the requirement for workers to join unions or pay union dues as a condition of employment, similar in concept to the “right to work” laws in some U.S. states.

“I would rather put my mind to figuring out how we make sure that never gets implemented into law than try to figure out what the ramifications would be for workers,” Dillon said.

“It is a race to the bottom.”


Competition is healthy. It drives quality, productivity, safety and innovation rather than stagnation and complacency.

Gary Robertson, CHRP

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