Region anticipates end to 'construction employer' label, chair says

A proposed amendment to Ontario's Labour Relations Act could lead to more competitive pricing for public infrastructure projects, according to Waterloo Regional Chair Karen Redman.

Region became a construction employer in 2012 and saw a 50 per cent drop in bidding, study says

Since 2012, the region has had to contract to companies registered with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. That could change if it were not considered a construction employer. (Jackie Sharkey/CBC)

A proposed amendment to Ontario's Labour Relations Act could lead to more competitive pricing for public infrastructure projects, according to Waterloo Regional Chair Karen Redman. 

On Thursday, Minister of Economic Development Todd Smith said his government would change the law so that municipalities could no longer be labelled construction employers.

In 2012, the Region of Waterloo became a construction employer under the act when two of its employees asked to join the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. 

From that point forward, the region could only contract to companies registered with the same union. 

50 per cent drop in bidding

A 2018 Cardus study indicated the move from non-construction employee to construction employee had "several negative effects" on the municipalities bidding process. 

The report said 84 per cent of construction firms were shut out of contract work, which in turn caused the average number of bidders to be cut in half. 

"Whenever you have infrastructure dollars, you're trying to stretch them as far as you can," Redman told CBC News. "And it seems intuitive that the more bids you get, the more competitive the price might be."

She said regional staff have been pleading their case with the provincial government and the Ontario Labour Relations Board, and are encouraged to hear about the proposed amendment.

She added that an appeal, which was filed with the OLRB, would be suspended if the amendment is passed. However, she doesn't expect that to happen until well into 2019.

Opening the bidding process

The decision to amend the Labour Relations Act is also being celebrated by the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada, which said clarifying who is and isn't a construction employer closes an important loop hole in the legislation. 

"Until today the law didn't actually make any distinction between a construction contractor and a municipality," said Vice-President Sean Reid. "Certain trade unions were able to take advantage of that loop hole and gain significant restrictions on who could bid or work for these municipalities."

If the amendment is passed, he said it would open the bidding process to all qualified workers, regardless of union affiliation. 

That includes construction workers who are employed by the companies his association represents, which are affiliated with the Christian Labour Association of Canada — or CLAC — an alternate union in Ontario.  

"It shouldn't matter what union card or no union card you're holding. If you're otherwise qualified to work on projects that your tax dollars are funding, you should be allowed to do so. That's what this bill does," he said.