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Strike wave: 45,000 construction workers on strike in Ontario

Ritch Whyman

May 14, 2022
Nearly 45,000 construction workers are out on strike in Ontario. The strike has shut down hundreds of both residential and industrial, commercial and institutional (ICI) projects and in some cases mining operations in northern Ontario. This is the biggest strike wave in Ontario in recent memory.
The strike is the first generalised salvo by workers who worked the whole pandemic only to watch their bosses reap in record profits while housing and food prices for workers skyrocketed but wages stagnated. It follows on a small but important wave of strikes and near strikes across the country. Each strike opens up the possibility for greater resistance against the pandemic profiteers and the industrial and financial oligarchs who have seen their wealth skyrocket during COVID.
Dozens of collective agreements covering over 100,000 building trades workers in Ontario expired at the end of April. Several unions settled for deals below inflation, like the electricians who settled for 8.6% over 3 years with a “me-too clause” that could lead to further increases if other trades do better.
The Ironworkers settled for 9% in what some members say was a contested election that only passed by a barely announced re-vote. 
The settlements have been primarily in the residential sector (houses, condos and apartments). 
The strike wave began when Operating Engineers local 793 across Ontario called 7,000 members out on strike in opposition to below inflation increases offered by the employers. The strike shut down building projects across the province. 
Denis Deschenes, a heavy equipment operator for 20 years, told CTV news that all workers want is to keep up with the cost of living.
"We’re trying to get a fair deal here," he said.
"With inflation – we all know the gas prices are just astronomically crazy – we’re trying to survive. We’ve got families and stuff at home with the fluctuation of inflation, it's just hard to get by now."
In rapid succession another series of workers rejected lower than inflation deals. 6,000 Drywall workers walked of the job as did 15,000 residential and high-rise formers from the huge LIUNA local 183 in the Greater Toronto Area. 
A few days later 15,000 members of the Carpenters union across the province rejected a deal that was well below inflation and went on strike for the first time in 34 years. An attempt to reach a new deal fell apart late this week.
More strikes maybe on the way
In a display of the growing anger at the rank-and-file level, Plumbers and Pipefitters rejected a deal pushed by the majority of their union's leadership. The offer turned down was at the time the best yet –  12.5 % over 3 years, but still below inflation.
Despite being supported by the Toronto local, which is the largest, workers outside of Toronto, especially in eastern Ontario shot it down by overwhelming margins. It appears a new deal is on the table offering an extra 1% over the last 2 years, but it is far from clear if it will be accepted now that workers are sensing there is the possibility of fighting for more.
Thousands of LIUNA 183 members in the ICI sector are set to vote the week of May 14th on an offer that the union leadership, faced with the current strike wave, is neither recommending nor calling for a rejection.
The leadership of the painters and glaziers’ union, IUPAT, has told its members to prepare for strike action as their employers are refusing to offer wages that at a minimum match inflation.
The high bar to date has been set by Brick and Masonry Council of Unions who won a 15.6% wage increase of between $7.68 and $10 per hour over the next 3 years. Precast cement workers won 15.1% increases equaling an $8.00 per hour bump over the next 3 years.
Other groups of trades, particularly in the ICI sector, are still in negotiations. If these strikes win, the pressure will be on other employers to match or surpass those gains. The confidence gained by one group of workers winning can be contagious.
Greedy Bosses
For the past 15 years employers have been telling workers that their wages, benefits and pensions need to stay in line with inflation (i.e., 2%). Now when inflation/price gouging is rapidly eroding hard-fought gains the employers change their tune and say pegging wages to inflation is not realistic.
Profits and revenues in the residential sector have been soaring as housing prices have exploded over the past 10 years. Construction workers have seen little of these profits. Wages for the past 15 years have continually fallen behind inflation, leaving workers poorer but bosses richer.
In the past year Mattamy homes, one of the largest home developers, saw its revenues jump by 6.8% to $4.42 billion.
In the ICI sector huge multinationals like EllisDon, PCL and Aecon have been reaping in vast sums from infrastructure and office projects across the province. Little of those profits have been seen by workers while the owners have walked off with pockets full of public dollars.
The employers seem to be largely caught off guard by this new mood of resistance. Just a few months ago the Ontario Construction Secretariat commissioned a poll of construction contractors, less than a quarter expressed any concern about labour costs. The report is full of rosy projections of a great and harmonious 2022. 
Clearly the employer assumed that the previous low levels of strikes and contracts that were either at or below inflation would continue. The arrogance of assuming that construction workers would just continue to watch their wages decline when facing 6.8% inflation and skyrocketing gas, food and housing costs, speaks volumes about the growing gap between the 1% and the rest of us.
Employers across the country may not see what is happening, but it is clear workers are trying to find to ways to generalise from other struggles. The victory by Metro warehouse workers in early April, inspired Toronto Janitors in late April to win 16.5% increases. A victory by the building trades could rip open the floodgates of workers across the province gaining the confidence to fight back.
Provincial Election
There will be enormous pressure from employers, the Tories and some union leaders to end these strikes before the provincial election campaign gets too far along. Doug Ford does not want the backdrop of strikes and widespread disputes clouding the election. Sadly, some unions such as the Boilermakers have already endorsed Ford and the Tories and will not want a strike to interfere with future construction projects, putting narrow sectional interests ahead of their fellow construction workers.
If more join the strike, we can expect the mainstream media to begin to drum up anti-strike sentiment. In the residential sector, workers are hampered by legislation brought in by the Liberals that limit strikes to six weeks. But such a delay will cause massive chaos in an already backlogged sector, so there will be huge pressure to end the strikes by the Tories. But if Ford intervenes and tries to ram through an unpopular deal it could cause a drop in critical support from some sections of the working class. 
Beyond a few statements in the media, the NDP has not put these strikes front and centre in its campaign. The rest of the labour movement, beyond some local labour councils, has barely raised a murmur about the strikes. Instead, all emphasis is on a last gasp push to try and ensure a listless NDP doesn’t perform too badly. 
The construction strikes have the potential to put workers rights and conditions front and centre in this election. They have the potential to target the profiteering Ford has encouraged and the subsequent decline in workers living standards. The whole labour movement should be rallying around these strikes and encouraging their spread. The strikes, not fine electoral platforms, are what can undermine not just Ford but his billionaire cronies.
The strikes also show the need for cross-trades strategy for construction workers in Toronto. Residential building trades workers could dismiss the 6 week strike limit by co-ordinating rolling strikes by trade. These workers have the power to shut the province down and should use that power to ensure wages and conditions keep pace with inflation. They could be in position to not only do that but re-coup past losses. 
If you're demoralised by the likelihood of a Ford victory, the answer isn't to double down on the hopeless and shallow ONDP campaign at the ballot box, but to look at the anger and confidence of workers organising themselves and fighting back. Therein lies the antidote to a second term of Ford.
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