Ontario is working on a comeback plan. The aim is to rebuild a workforce hollowed out by the pandemic. But before COVID-19 hit, the work world was already shifting underneath thousands of Ontario construction workers. Increasingly their opportunity to work on big public projects, especially in the City of Toronto, wasn’t based on merit or ability, but carrying the right union card. Now, as the provincial government’s Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee explores the future of work in Ontario, ensuring all workers have equal access to work, seems like a good place to start.
Ontario’s Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development, Monte McNaughton, is asking the right question: “how can we ensure that every worker has equal access to dignity and opportunity?” Answer: by allowing all contractors to bid on public projects and giving every worker the chance to build them and develop their critical skillsets.
The passage of Bill 66, “Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act” in April of 2019, went a long way in restoring fairness for Ontario construction workers. The legislation allowed municipalities including Hamilton, Sault Ste. Marie and the Region of Waterloo to open up their construction markets. For the first time in decades, they can now invite all qualified companies to bid on projects, and all qualified workers to help build them. Before that, these municipalities were forced to award public construction contracts to the same companies, time and again, for one reason: because they were affiliated with certain unions.
Unfortunately, Bill 66 allowed for wiggle room. The City of Toronto, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) under intense pressure from the Building Trades Unions, opted out of the legislation. It was their preference to maintain the status quo. As a result, the vast majority of construction companies and their workers still have no chance to build City of Toronto, TDSB or TCHC projects. They’re shut out with no access to construction work that their tax dollars help fund.
Barring perfectly qualified workers from projects is not only unfair; it’s costly. Research from the prominent think tank Cardus, shows the Region of Waterloo is already benefiting from construction competition. More bids have lowered costs, saving the Region $24 million so far. These kinds of savings could go a long way in helping Toronto recover from the pandemic. Instead, the City regularly turns to the province and the federal government for hand-outs. All the while, perfectly qualified workers are denied access to public construction work, and hardworking taxpayers are seeing their tax dollars squandered.
The intent of Bill 66 somehow got lost during the procurement process for construction of The Ottawa Hospital’s new Civic campus. The hospital is negotiating a restrictive Project Labour Agreement (PLA) which means once again, that only workers who carry certain union cards can build this multi-billion-dollar project; a project funded with public tax dollars. Infrastructure Ontario would benefit from rules that clearly spell out that projects built with public funds must be open to all qualified contractors and workers.
The exclusionary tactics don’t end there. Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs) can be designed to shut workers out of government construction projects, as we’ve seen in British Columbia. Unless carefully defined when big projects are built, these agreements can easily fall short of achieving their goals of lasting community benefits and training for underrepresented groups by limiting opportunities for thousands of workers.
The same care and scrutiny must also be applied before welcoming private sector investment in infrastructure. Increasingly, major international construction unions are offering up their pension funds in alternative financing and procurement (AFP) projects. These investments often come with strings attached, such as the hiring of only select union workers.
If Ontario wants to help workplaces and workforces grow, it’s important to recognize that these efforts can easily be undermined by labour monopolies. While they come in many shapes and disguises, all labour monopolies are aimed at giving certain labour groups a distinct advantage at the expense of thousands of Ontario construction workers who choose not to affiliate with them.
The way we work in Ontario, can be improved by keeping labour monopolies at bay. This ensures that all workers are given the same chance to work now, and into the future.
Paul de Jong is President of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA)