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Plumbers and steamfitters strike against concessions

Ritch Whyman

June 5, 2019

Picket lines went up across cities, towns and worksites in Ontario this week as 12,000 members of the United Association of Plumbers and Steamfitters walked out on strike. This is the first major strike under the Ford government and could have serious effect on several major industrial and infrastructure projects in Ontario.

The workers voted overwhelmingly to strike after the Mechanical Contractors Association of Ontario (the employers organisation in the industry) refused to back down from major demands for concessions.

Two of the key concessions being sought by the employers are to rollback overtime after 36 hours and do away with any sense of seniority for workers. Similar issues have also forced a strike by Sheet Metal workers in Ontario.

At a time when the construction industry is booming, between industrial upgrades and infrastructure projects, it's clear that the employers are looking to push back against historic rights workers in the building trades had fought for and maintained over decades.

By forcing demands around hours and seniority the employers clearly felt they could drive a wedge in the union's membership and undermine the solidarity of the membership.

The demand to try and mandate a “voluntary” 40 hour work week is an attempt to pit workers against each other and undermine the union. Currently at most work sites, except those covered by a “project labour agreement” after 36 hours of work a week overtime pay kicks in.

The second deal breaker put forward by the employer is tied to the first one: the demand for contractors to be able to hire only based on who they want as opposed to having to have some employees hired on via the union hiring hall. This “name based hiring” will allow employers to weed out and, in essence, blacklist employees who stand up for health and safety. It will create a pressure to skirt union regulations and work the “voluntary” 40 hours just to ensure employers will pick you to be on their crews.

Employers – both project managers and contractors alike – are claiming they need to reign in the “skyrocketing costs” of construction in Ontario.

One industry expert claimed costs in the ICI (industrial, commercial and infrastructure) sector have risen 15% since 2016 (compared to 30% in the less unionised high rise sector). But wages and compensation for building trades workers haven’t gone up even close to that. This suggests that corporate greed, waste by contractors is what’s driving the cost of construction in Ontario, not workers' wages.

Sadly the building trades, much like the industrial and private sector unions, are divided by various trades and unions. Many of the larger unions have ratified contracts (many with wage increases and no concessions), but this has left others to stand alone. We need a much better strategy, driven from the membership in unions for deeper solidarity when it comes to bargaining with similar employers or industries. Forming a united front of unions that refused to settle any agreements until all were ready would force the hand of employers like the MCAO.

It is important that all labour movement activists rally behind the plumbers and sheet metal workers. The attacks they are facing are a serious attempt to undermine union rights in the building trades.

The employers are emboldened by their buddy Doug Ford, and that the anti-union construction association, MERIT, has the premier’s ear. A victory for the employers will further the confidence the employers have across the board and affect every worker.

The labour movement and all progressives need to make sure this strike wins and the employers demands go down to defeat.

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