The sheet metal workers’ settlement: “Everybody’s miserable”

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Ontario Construction Report staff writer

Both employers and Ontario sheet metal workers were far from universally satisfied when they ratified a new three year contract last week.

Negotiators for the Ontario Sheet Metal Workers’ & Roofers’ Conference (OSMWRC) reported on Wednesday that almost 40 per cent of the membership (39.8 per cent) voted against the agreement with the Ontario Sheet Metal Contractors Association (OSMCA).

“It is clear that a significant minority of our membership were willing to stay on strike even longer than eight weeks,” they wrote.

Meanwhile, OSMCA executive director Darryl Stewart said “everybody’s miserable” about the settlement – but the contractors won some concessions from the union, especially relating to apprenticeship ratios, through the painful and protracted negotiations.

The union declined to provide voting results by local, unlike the United Association (UA) representing plumbers and pipefitters, which resolved their dispute after a one week strike in June. (Overall 79.7 per cent of the 3,399 UA members voted to accept the agreement – with all union locals but Hamilton supporting the accord.)

“The membership is justifiably angry about being forced out on strike,” OSMWRC reported. “The sacrifices made to defend the collective agreement were extremely high.

“However, we must recognize that this strike was a total victory. Not only did we successfully resist the demands for control of our hiring halls and concessions to our hours of work – but we negotiated some of the highest increases to wages in the ICI construction sector.

“This victory was only possible because of the strength of our membership throughout Ontario. The contractors’ association thought we were weak and could easily be divided. They thought we would crumble. They were wrong.

“We were tested.

“We held the line.

“We stood together.

“Once again your representatives thank you for your commitment, your sacrifices and your support.”

Despite requests from some members of Toronto Local 30 for a local-by-local ratification vote breakdown, the OSMWRC said all the results are jumbled together in a provincial total, and so the specific local results would not be available.

It is conceivable that some locals were eager to end the strike because they gained little from the work stoppage – they already had a 40 hour work-week and employer “naming” status instead of the 36-hour work week and hiring hall rights that certain major locals including Toronto and Ottawa were trying to preserve.

As Ottawa members voted, at least one union representative said indeed there were significant concessions to the employers, although he was not specific about their nature.

Stewart, representing the employer bargaining authority, provided details about the concessions.

“We were able to get a little improvement to the apprentice ratio,” he said. “We didn’t get 1 (apprentice) to 1 (journeyman), but we got closer to 2 to 1.”

The changes will be especially useful to smaller contractors, where employers can have a 1 to 1 ratio for the first two rather than a single journeyman. This scales upwards through the employer’s size.

As well, the employers and union agreed that “local joint apprenticeship committees” will manage apprenticeship intakes, rather than the “union at its discretion,” giving employers greater say in the apprenticeship process.

Stewart said one other “win” for employers was the union’s acceptance of the OSMCA’s request that the local union hiring halls clearly outline in writing their hiring hall assignment policies and rules – a provision that the contractors believe will ensure that there will be fairness in how workers are allocated to employers.

“There was a modest improvement in mobility provisions between local jurisdictions in the province” as well as improvements harmonizing in the wage percentages for sheeting and decking classifications. Employers also gained “some inclement weather language thorough the province, and a simplification to vacation and holiday pay provisions.”

The employers however gave up on the big fight for Toronto and some other locals – their demand initially for a 40 hour work-week, later modified to a 37.5 hour work-week, which would kick in if the union could not supply enough labor to complete projects.

Stewart said the union provided a counter proposal that on the surface accepted the work hours change, but put in a sleeper clause regarding pension and other benefits that would have greatly increased employers’ costs. Accordingly, the employers backed off.

In the end, he said, the biggest battle was in Toronto – and Stewart indicated that both employers and the union local there were ready to continue the fight. But provincial bargaining ultimately helped to ensure a compromise, especially since several sheet metal workers’ union locals currently have a 40-hour week and they gained nothing for their weeks off the job.

Stewart said in an earlier interview that employers were fighting to deal with serious labour shortages, where hiring halls could not fill orders for qualified employees. Overtime costs with the 36 hour work week were making the unionized contractors in markets such as Toronto – which had only 22 per cent unionized representation – uncompetitive against non-union contractors and those represented by the Christian Labour Alliance of Canada (CLAC), he said.

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