December 11, 2018 by David Kennedy
TORONTO—In its latest drive to “cut red tape” the new Ontario government has introduced a bill that would rewrite a more than 30-year-old stipulation that restricts certain cities, schools and hospitals to hiring unionized construction firms for infrastructure work.
The government, led by Premier Doug Ford, said passing Bill 66 would increase competition for public sector construction work by amending the province’s Labour Relations Act of 1995. The proposed legislation would explicitly deem public bodies, such as municipalities, school boards, hospitals and universities “non-construction employers,” effectively opening up public jobs to non-union shops.
While the changes would likely increase the pool of bidders for public infrastructure work in cities such as Toronto, Hamilton and Waterloo, the Ontario Federation of Labour said the amendment would put lives at risk.
“Unionized construction trades are leaders in health and safety,” Chris Buckley, the OFL’s president, said in a statement. “By opening public construction projects to non-union shops, Ford is putting worker safety at greater risk and trampling collective bargaining agreements.”
Buckley added that the move would put “big business” ahead of workers’ lives.
The Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA), meanwhile, applauded the move by the Progressive Conservative government, which swept to power in June.
“This groundbreaking legislation is a giant step forward in treating taxpayers, workers and employers fairly,” Sean Reid, PCA vice-president and regional director for Ontario, said in a statement. “Competitive bidding will ensure taxpayers are getting the best possible value on construction work and qualified contractors and workers are no longer shut out of the process.”
Reid noted the current bidding process has made more than 83 per cent of qualified firms in Waterloo ineligible for public infrastructure work, a figure from a March report by Hamilton-based think tank Cardus.
The Cardus study has faced criticism, however. At the time of release, the Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario claimed the study used figures it said were “statistically invalid.” The group representing 16 different Ontario carpenters’ unions also slammed the proposed Ontario legislation tabled Dec. 6, calling it an assault on bargaining rights and existing collective agreements.
“Our union has had productive relationships with these types of employers, such as the City of Toronto, which in many cases go back decades, and which are designed to ensure that the employers get real value for money while construction workers can make a fair and honest living,” said Mike Yorke, the president and director of Public Affairs at the CDCO. “Apparently, those types of relationships are not something that this premier wants to see continue.”
Tony Iannuzzi, head of the Carpenters’ Union in Ontario, added that the union intends to fight the move, in court, if necessary.
Bill 66 was carried through its first reading at Queen’s Park last week. MPPs will debate the omnibus bill, which also includes a number of other actions the government says will reduce regulatory burdens, during a second reading.