Two construction sectors in Ontario have seen their first strikes in 30 years as workers hit the picket lines to fight employer demands for concessions, chief among them increased working hours.
On May 6, approximately 5,000 sheet metal workers went on strike after the breakdown of talks between the Ontario Sheet Metal Workers’ and Roofers’ Conference, which represents the workers, and the Ontario Sheet Metal Contractors Association, which represents the bosses. Picket lines were quickly established in communities including Toronto, Ottawa, London, Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Thunder Bay, Niagara, Kingston, and Sarnia.
On June 1, an estimated 12,000 plumbers and pipefitters downed tools after workers represented by the Ontario Pipes Trade Council (OPTC) voted by a whopping 96 per cent to reject the final contract offer put forward by the Mechanical Contractors Association of Ontario (MCAO). While the sheet metal workers remain on strike as of this writing, a tentative deal for the plumbers and steamfitters was reached in less than five days after the MCAO dropped demands for increased working hours. The resulting 2019-2022 contract, subsequently ratified by OPTC members and ending the seven-day strike, includes a 6.7 per cent pay increase over three years.
Similar issues pushed the sheet metal workers as well as the plumbers and pipefitters towards their overwhelming strike votes, starting with the demand of employers for increased working hours. Currently, workers in most locals are employed to work 36 hours over four days per week, after which they receive overtime pay. Under the new proposed guidelines for both sheet metal workers and plumbers and pipefitters, the work week would increase to 40 hours or more, meaning workers would be working more hours for less pay. The push for longer work weeks is driven in part by demands of big companies in centres like Toronto, which are heavily invested in condo development and the construction of new high-rise buildings.
Another proposed concession in each sector was allowing contractors to bypass or control hiring halls, the organizations that provide new hires for employers. Under closed shop rules, hiring halls are controlled by the union and any new employee is required to join the union before they can be hired. Employer control of hiring halls would allow contractors to hire non-union workers, driving down wages and weakening the union’s collective bargaining power. In the case of the plumbers and steamfitters, the MCAO demanded 100 per cent name hires, which would allow employers to ask the union to hire a certain individual instead of the person at the top of the union’s hiring hall list.
In addition to these issues, sheet metal workers have also been fighting against a proposed change in apprentice ratios. Previous collective agreements mandated a ratio of at least three journeymen for every one apprentice. Contractors are now proposing to set the ratio at 1:1, reflecting new legislative guidelines passed by the Conservative government of Doug Ford. Employers claim the ratio change is motivated by a labour shortage. However, Paul Reynolds, president of the Sheet Metal Workers International Association Local 269, countered that the changes mean employers “can have cheaper labour on site on a daily basis with less experience and less qualified tradesmen in the workplace.”
Employer demands in each of these sectors are part of a general offensive against workers in Ontario, in which the bosses’ attacks are supported by the Ford regime through anti-worker legislation such as Bill 47, which rolled back the minimum wage and other workplace protections. The recent strikes in the construction trades, however, suggest that workers are fighting back.
In the case of the plumbers and pipefitters, that fightback has resulted in an apparent victory. An OPTC press release notes that along with a wage increase, the new contract “preserves the flexibility that allows members to schedule personal appointments and training classes without a loss of employment hours.” However, the press release does not mention the issue of name hires, and it is unclear whether the ratified contract included any concession on this front.
The ongoing strike of sheet metal workers threatens major disruption to construction projects and heavy industry across Ontario. As noted by the Hamilton Spectator, sheet metal workers are responsible for “everything from ventilation systems to eavestroughs.” While plumbers and steamfitters have returned to work, sheet metal workers remain on the picket lines and the current construction season could yet become even more volatile, as dozens of other construction trade sectors have yet to negotiate new contracts.
By refusing to accept concessions and going on strike, workers in the construction trades are offering an inspiring example to all workers in Ontario. The wider labour movement must support the sheet metal workers in every way possible. By going on the offensive against the bosses, workers can put a stop to the endless concessions that have plagued the labour movement in recent decades and once more begin to achieve real gains in their quality of life.
Victory to the sheet metal workers!