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Ontario Construction News staff writer
A dispute about work hours and union hiring hall procedures that has caused sheet metal workers to be on strike throughout the province since the weekend of May 4 appears likely to spread to unionized plumbers and steamfitters.
If a settlement isn’t reached when negotiations resume on Wednesday (May 22), some 12,000 plumbers and pipefitters will go on strike this Friday (May 24). If the workers strike, it will be the first time they have walked off the job in three decades.
In all three cases, employer bargaining agencies are standing firm about changing the work week for tradespeople from 36 to 40 hours, and revising long-standing union hiring hall practices, where the unions have the power to assign members to employers’ sites at their discretion.
Employers negotiating with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) originally asked for the same hiring hall rule and hour changes, but backed off, averting a labour dispute – and that union was the first to ratify its collective bargaining agreement.
However the employers of the sheet metal, plumbers and pipefitters union members are so far holding firm on the hour and rule change demands.
Union representatives say negotiators from the Mechanical Contractors Association of Ontario (MCAO) have “not been progressive.”
“We’ve met with the contractors several times over the past two months and have found them to be quite unreasonable,” says Ross Tius, chairman of the Ontario Pipe Trades Council (OPTC) bargaining committee. “They are refusing to move at all on their proposals, which, I must add, are big changes that would drastically impact our members not just on the work site, but also in their personal and family lives.”
The current work week allows the contractor the flexibility in scheduling work which also allows members to schedule personal appointments and training classes without a loss of employment hours — it’s a benefit to both sides, the OPTC says in a statement.
“Contractors have also proposed changing the fundamental nature of union hiring halls with a desire to bypass entirely the list of plumbers and steamfitters seeking work, a move that would undermine the nature and role of the unionized skilled trades,” the statement said.
Historically, this power has been an important tool for the unions, because the relationship between the unions and individual employers could impact the decisions on which workers they would receive from the union hall. An employer on good terms with the union, for example, might receive the hardest-working and most reliable employees, while one that was causing trouble could receive unproductive workers, or individuals prone to causing trouble. Historically, this power meant that many times employers would do everything they could to keep a stable work force – even in slower times – to avoid recourse to the hiring hall.
The hours of work are also contentious. In many cases, unionized workers work within their nine-hour, four day schedule for four days at eight hours, with a half day off on Fridays. If employers want them to work the full shift Monday to Friday, they must pay overtime for the extra hours – increasing costs, and according to spokesperson representing unionized employers, creating economic pressure that may make the unionized option uncompetitive with non-union shops or those employing workers represented by the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC).
“We have come to the table looking for meaningful dialogue and negotiation and they have taken the opposite approach – a hard stand – on basic items that would not work out,” says Tius. “If our contractors hold their present line of dialogue when we resume negotiation, they will be forcing the first strike by our trades in more than 30 years.”
Meanwhile, the sheet metal workers continue to serve on four hour picket duty shifts to earn strike pay of $150 a week, less than the equivalent of what they would earn within three hours on the job.
In one Facebook post, members reported that the fire department was called when a fire was put out in the back of a sheet metal supply shop in North York. “I heard a burn barrel was smoking and someone called the fire department,” the union member reported.
“Once again, our dedicated picketers did not disappoint!” a Sheet Metal Workers’ and Roofers’ Local 30 member reported on Facebook. “Thank you to all our picket captains for their continued service. Walk the line strong and proud.”
There is no indication when negotiations will resume.
Wayne Peterson, executive director of the Construction Employers Co-ordinating Council of Ontario (CECCO), said earlier that unions representing plasterers, cement masons, bricklayers, roofers, refrigeration workers and insulators have reached tentative accords on May 8. “I don’t anticipate any problems,” he said. “Most of the ratification votes will be completed by the end of May.”
Still outstanding are the boilermakers, millwrights, iron workers, tile and terrazzo and steeplejacks.
While the sheet metal workers are on strike, the roofers component of the union has settled and members of that group will continue to work the current 44 hour work week schedule, Peterson has said.