Sheet metal workers stay off job as other unions reach tentative settlements

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Joe Sellers, general president of SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, addresses Local 30 picketers at Modern Niagara's new shop (SMRW Local 30 Facebook page)

Ontario Construction News staff writer

As sheet metal union workers continue their second week of strike action, several other construction trade unions have reached tentative settlements and will begin ratification votes in upcoming weeks.

However, the dispute primarily involving an increase in the work week from 36 to 40 that has caused walk-outs by members of the Sheet Metal Workers’ and Roofers’ (SMWR) union throughout the province shows no signs of resolution – and the issue may spread to the millwrights, facing similar demands from their employer bargaining agencies.

Wayne Peterson, executive director of the Construction Employers Co-ordinating Council of Ontario, said on Friday 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, plumbers and pipe fitters, iron workers, tile and terrazzo and steeplejacks.

Peterson says he expects, while negotiations are not resolved with these unions, the only group with a significant probability to join the sheet metal workers on the picket line would be the millwrights.

Millwrights have negotiating meetings scheduled for this week, with the iron workers scheduled to meet on May 18 and plumbers and pipefitters on May 21, he said.

However, there is no early sign of a solution to the dispute between employers and the sheet metal workers.

Under the expired collective agreements, the workers were on the job for four nine-hour days.  If they worked an eight hour shift, they generally only worked half-days on Fridays. Peterson says this arrangement was negotiated decades ago, meaning that employers with the 36 hour week either needed to pay their workers upwards of double time for a full shift on Fridays, or give their workers the time off.

“It’s a difficult situation,” he said. “This isn’t the first time the 40 hour work week has come up.  It’s been a management request for a number of rounds of bargaining  And I guess at this point the managers put their foot down rather than putting out the money.”

A challenge in the negotiations is the 40 hour work week was a subject of negotiations with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), which settled early – with the existing 36-hour rule intact.

So the sheet metal workers feel little desire to give back the scheduling arrangements they’ve had for years.

The strike is proving costly for both sides. Sheet metal workers earn upwards of $60 an hour or more with benefits, compared to their strike pay, which is $150 per week. Meanwhile, employers face the risk of loss of contracts to non-union competition.

With the sheet metal workers, “both sides are dug in their positions,” Peterson said. “They are going to have a very tough time, getting back to a level of confidence in each other.  You always worry about how relationships might be damaged over the course of a strike.”

Despite the walkout, the strike hasn’t badly disrupted most projects; pickets are generally confined to the fabrication and off-site offices.

The SMWR local 30 serving the GTA area says on its website that it won’t picket on the weekend, but “on Monday (today) picketing will expand to some new locations,”

“We need to build on the momentum that we built during this first week,” the union said on its website on Friday. “Check the website and Facebook on Sunday for Monday’s picket line locations. A meeting for picket captains will be held tomorrow (Saturday) at 10:00 am at the Union Hall. Please reach out to your brothers and sisters and encourage them to come walk the line next week.”

Despite the sheet metal workers’ strike, the union’s roofing component successfully ratified its agreement on May 7, with increases of $1.40 per hour effective May 1, 2019, with a further increase of $1.35 per hour on May 1, 2020 and 2021.

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