12,000 plumbers and pipefitters on precipice of province-wide strike as negotiations falter

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peterborough sheet metal workers
A worker picking up supplies at the Sheet Metal Workers’ Union hall in Peterborough signs the hard hat of picket captain Peter Keitel. (Sheet Metal Workers' Union Facebook page)

Ontario Construction News staff writer

Unless a last-minute settlement is achieved, 12,000 Ontario plumbers and pipefitters will walk off the job on Tuesday, joining sheet metal workers who have been on strike since the beginning of May.

As the weekend approached, progress appeared to be achieved to avert the impending strike by members of the United Association (UA) representing plumbers and pipefitters and the Mechanical Contractors Association of Ontario (MCAO), representing employers.

But negotiations have stalled and the union’s Local 46 in Toronto issued a statement on its website on Saturday saying that employers were not budging from their demands for a change to a 40 hour work-week from the former 36-hour contract. The UA say negotiations won’t start until this afternoon, just hours before the 12:01 a.m. Tuesday strike deadline.

This morning (Monday), the union posted an additional notice saying that “negotiations are continuing today.”

“There has been a lot of speculation on social media and from contractors to our membership about who would be affected by a strike in the ICI sector,” the Local 46 notice posted between 9 and 10 a.m. said. “To make it perfectly clear, all members working in the industrial, commercial, institutional, ICI service and control sector will be affected and go on strike. There will be no exceptions to this rule.(Bolded as in the original notice, which was issued in all caps format).

“Any member working contrary to this and crossing picket lines and working uring the strike will be charged and face expulsion from the UA,” the union wrote.

“Your Ontario Pipe Trades Council bargaining committee consisting of local business managers has continued to bargain with the Mechanical Contractors Association,” the Saturday Local 46 statement said. “Some progress has been made. However the contractors association still refuse(es) to back off their demands for a 40 hour work week. Your negotiating committee remains united in our position in upholding our present hours of work.”

“Talks have broken off and will reconvene Monday afternoon prior to the 12:01 Tuesday morning deadline,” the statement concluded.

The other major issue – the demands from employers for “naming” rights, gutting the union’s hiring hall employee selection power – was not mentioned in the most recent statement, but very much remains an outstanding issue for the sheet metal workers, who posted their own notice indicating that their negotiations are far from resolved.

In fact, in the statement reported on the Sheet Metal Workers’ and Roofers’ Union Local 30 website, a new issue – at least one previously unreported – was raised by the union’s leadership.

The memo said the Sheet Metal Contractors’ Association “still refuse to abandon their demands for concessions” including: ”Control over hiring so they can move employees across the province without the need to hire local members.”

The other two topics still unresolved include:

1. “Working more hours per week without qualifying for overtime pay,” and
2. “Company control over our hiring halls.”

“Your negotiation team remains steadfast in opposing the relentless demand for concessions,” the Local 30 statement said. “We are scheduled to return to negotiations on Monday, May 27 and Tuesday, May 28. We will continue to push for a reasonable settlement that fights to maintain existing hours of work and a democratic local hiring hall all at a fair wage.”

On a more positive note, the sheet metal workers’ union says: “Progress has been very slow but progress has been made on many local issues important to our members. Many of our local unions have tentative settlements on local issues.”

But this progress does not resolve the rift between employer bargaining authorities and the unions on the two key issues shaping the dispute – the overtime requirements of the 36 hour work-week, and the hiring hall/worker assignment capacities, the latter of which among the unions’ greatest leverage tools in managing their employer relationships.

By controlling the worker selection process, the unions can reward or punish individual employers by selecting good workers or troublemakers when an employer needs additional labour. In other cases where this power exists, employers fight to keep their best employees on the job year round to avoid reverting to the hiring hall.

Unionized employers, as well, face challenging competition in some markets from non-union employers and union employees represented by the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC), which encourages tradespeople to develop skills in multiple areas, and co-operates with employers in creating flexible working arrangements to meet individual organizations’ requirements.

A third factor underlying the current negotiations is the fact that the previous Liberal government, which had close relationships and political support from many of the province’s construction trade unions, has been replaced by Conservative premier Doug Ford’s government, which has expressed support for the Labourers’ International Union of North America in scope-of-work disputes, and has decided to abolish the Ontario College of Trades (OCOT), which had the support of organized labour.

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