Thousands of Ontario construction workers are on strike. What’s going on?

Ontario’s construction industry is facing several strikes with tens of thousands of various trade workers off the job just as building season ramps up in the province.

A carpenters’ union was the latest to walk the picket lines on Monday. They join thousands of crane operators and more than 15,000 skilled labourers who went on strike earlier in the month.

Here’s what’s happening.

Who’s on strike?

Several trades in both residential and commercial construction have been on strike this month.

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On Monday, the Carpenter’s District Council of Ontario, United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America in the industrial, commercial and institutional (ICI) sector announced a strike, affecting more than 15,000 members.

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Last week, Local 793, a union representing operating engineers, went on strike. That includes crane and equipment rental, steel erection and mechanical installations, foundation, piling and caisson boring, excavation/earth moving, general contractor construction and surveying.

Further, LiUNA’s high-rise forming, self-levelling flooring, house framers, tile installers, railing installers, and carpet and hardwood installers announced a strike on May 1.

The job action has consequences for roughly 15,000 skilled labourers in the residential sector, LiUNA said.

Why are they on strike?

When it announced its intention to strike, the carpenters’ union said it wants to see a “fair deal” for members whose “work was seen as essential during the pandemic and because of this, and because of spiralling cost of living increases, our union and our members believe that wages now have to be increased.”

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“Nobody wants to go on strike,” said Mike Yorke, the president and director of public affairs and innovation for the union, adding it hasn’t been on strike in the ICI sector, which includes school and hospital construction, for 34 years.

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The Carpenters Employer Bargaining Agency, a provincially designated employer negotiating committee made up of six employer organizations, said in a statement Monday it was “disappointed” to hear of the strike, but is “committed to the bargaining process.”

Both Local 793 and LiUNA’s unions cited rising costs and wage increases as a reason to go on strike.

Construction work has been ongoing throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, even when lockdowns were imposed, as many governments deemed the sector an essential service, said Rafael Gomez, director of the centre for industrial relations and human resources at the University of Toronto.

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As the economy reopens and inflation rises, the trades are feeling the pinch, he added.

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“The trades, remember, have to purchase their own equipment a lot of times and they carry it around, so you’re carrying a lot of costs that increased — not to mention the cost of living,” Gomez said.

“There’s a lot of frustration and resentment among this group of workers who have had to bear the brunt of all of our COVID measures. … So sensing an opportunity, the unions are finally saying, ‘Hey, we need adjustments, we want fair wages and payments,’ and they know all of these projects, the government needs them to get back on track.”

What’s happening right now?

Workers in several trades have been off the job, and in one sector of construction – residential, an industry group told Global News concrete formers and framers are vital to getting homes built.

Canada has found itself in a housing crunch for years. Demand still outpaces supply in many parts of the country, which governments have been working for years to balance.

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“The two big ones are the structural elements, because there’s so many things that follow from that,” said Richard Lyall, president of the Residential Construction Council of Ontario.

“If you don’t have a structure, then you can’t nail things to it, screw things to it, glue things to it and whatever.”

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Since the strikes began, progress has been made on some fronts. According to LiUNA’S website, railing installers reached a new agreement on May 7, bringing that sector’s strike to an end.

In high-rise forming, negotiators will be going back to the bargaining table on May 13 and 17, LiUNA said. It’s one of the trades key for residential construction, according to Lyall.

LiUNA did not return a request for comment on progress, by deadline, regarding its other sectors, like framers, and Local 793 did not answer comment requests either.

The carpenters’ union and its respective employer bargaining agencies are scheduled to meet on May 12, Yorke said.

How will this impact Ontarians?

All parties involved will want to hammer out deals as soon as possible, Lyall said, as it’s not in anyone’s interest for housing projects or public infrastructure to be delayed.

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“The continuing strikes are not really productive for anyone involved, including the workers who are involved in the strike. It’s not good for anybody,” he said.

“So I would hope that the parties get back to the table and can reach deals and settle disputes … if they can’t, for whatever reason … the best thing to do is to say, look, ‘Let’s just get back to work. We’ll put this to arbitration.’”

New homes are built in a housing construction development in the west-end of Ottawa on May 6, 2021. Several trade groups in Ontario’s construction industry are currently on strike. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

With some deals falling in place, and dates for talks scheduled, Lyall hopes resolutions will be reached in the next few weeks.

Gomez, meanwhile, thinks the strikes won’t last long at all, especially given the provincial election.

“This is, again, no coincidence. (Doug) Ford doesn’t want to see strikes,” he said, adding the government would likely want to see projects that involve them back on track quickly.

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Furthermore, if workers get the deals they’re looking for, it could result in better construction, Gomez said.

“We have pretty good history in Ontario with well-built infrastructure, in part, because you’ve got really well-skilled trades persons who are doing the work. You don’t want disgruntled trades persons: you want good, happy, content, trades persons,” he said.

“These aren’t going to be long strikes. You can book me on that.”

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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