Competitive bidding on construction work restored
Changes to the Labour Relations Act would reverse region’s construction-employer designation
THE PROVINCE’S PROPOSED CHANGES to its Labour Relations Act could address a longstanding sore spot in Waterloo Region, which was deemed a “construction employer,” hampering its ability to seek tenders for public infrastructure work.
Last week, Minister of Economic Development Todd Smith announced plans to amend the law such that municipalities could no longer be deemed construction employers. In the region, that would undo a 2012 incident in which two of its employees opted to join the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, forcing the municipality to contract only with companies register with that union.
Under Bill 66, municipalities, school boards, universities and similar public entities would be classified as “non-construction employers.” That would allow non-unionized contractors to bid on projects tendered by those organizations.
“It’s a fairness issue of taxpayers’, making sure local taxpayers’ dollars go further,” said Ian McLean, CEO of Greater KW Chamber of Commerce, which has been lobbying for the changes. “Local companies shouldn’t be excluded from bidding on local projects. We have members that are unionized and non-unionized, and we just want a level playing field for everybody.”
Along with praise from Kitchener-Conestoga MPP Mike Harris, the proposed legislation won kudos from regional chair Karen Redman and former MPP Michael Harris, now a regional councillor, who had fought to reverse the construction employer designation while in opposition.
The changes would be a boon to the construction industry, said McLean.
“If you’re a contractor and you can do the work, you should just be allowed to bid on it,” said McLean. “The best price, the best quality, the best ability to do the job should be the determining factors – not whether you have a specific agreement with one union. It also gives the choice to municipalities and school boards to pick the contractor that best fits them whether it’s a union shop or a non-union shop.”
The number of bids on a particular infrastructure project would increase significantly, should this bill be passed, supporters maintain. However, the amendments have been met with some mixed reactions, particularly from construction and union groups. Ontario Federation of Labour president Chris Buckley was vocal about his opposition.
“Unionized construction trades are leaders in health and safety,” said Buckley in a released statement. “By opening public construction projects to non-union shops, Ford is putting worker safety at greater risk and trampling collective bargaining agreements. By reducing safety standards to satisfy big business, the government is playing with the lives of Ontarians.”
The main argument among opposing groups is that the proposed legislation could pose a risk to worker health and safety.
“This bill is going to do nothing but replace red tape with yellow caution tape,” said Buckley. “The OFL is not opposed to reducing administrative regulations. But many of the regulations currently on the books are there to serve a useful purpose, from ensuring workers know their rights to safeguarding their health at work.”
The new legislation is just one of 32 proposed amendments to the Restor- ing Ontario’s Competitiveness Act, which aims to stimulate business investment, create decent jobs, and make Ontario more competitive by cutting unnecessary regulations, according to the Progressive Conservative government.
While the bill is not yet law, the Chamber of Commerce is asking the Ford government to place it high on the legislative priority list to be ready for the 2019 spring and summer construction season.