Opinion| Ontario Labour Relations Board Continues to Roadblock Contracts for Non-Unionized Tradespeople and Labourers

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The problem of the city years ago being declared a construction employer, which means it can only use unionized contractors on any city project that requires either carpenters or labourers, returned to city council Monday night.

But again it went nowhere, council taking no action on a report by Peter Niro, director of human resources, accepting it, as recommended by the director, only as information.

If this sounds familiar, it should.

A motion was put before council back on Sept. 9, 2013, by Councillors Brian Watkins and Rick Niro calling for support of a private member’s bill presented by Progressive Conservative MPP Mike Harris that would allow both unionized and non-unionized companies to bid on city work projects.

But council voted to defer the matter to Sept. 23, mainly on the strength of comments by Coun. Joe Krmpotich that more information was required as to how Harris’s proposed legislation, titled the Fair and Open Tendering Act, would impact Sault Ste. Marie.

When the motion came back before council on Sept. 23, what little interest our councillors had shown in it seemed to have expired. The minutes of the meeting carry only one word in regard to dispensation, POSTPONED in capital letters.

The issue didn’t come up again here until late last year, after the Greater Essex and County District School Board, an amalgamation of the Windsor and Essex County Boards of Education, had won its three-year fight before the Ontario Labour Relations Board to have its construction projects open to all contractors and workers.

Previously the board was allowed to offer work on its projects only to contractors and sub-contractors that employed union workers, a situation similar to that faced by the city.

The decision caught the interest of Mayor Christian Provenzano, who told reporter Elaine Della-Mattia of The Sault Star that the Essex board ruling was “interesting” and that it was something council and staff needs to consider.

“It’s a matter of fairness in the market and getting a contract with the most competitive price for the taxpayer,” he said.

It is a thought echoed by Ward 3 Coun. Matthew Shoemaker now.

He sees it as unjust that non-unionized local companies are prohibited from bidding on municipal contracts.

“All local business, both unionized and non-unionized, pay property taxes and should have a fair shot at our municipal contracts,” he told me. “This is not a matter, in my view, of union versus non-union. It is, as you know, a requirement that we must use one specific union, to the exclusion of all others, which I believe has a detrimental effect on the competitiveness of those bids.”

Council might have been scared off by some of the information Niro presented in his report, such as the cost of appearing before the Labour Relations Board to fight the issue estimated to be in the area of $75,000 to $100,000, and that a discussion with the ministry of labour and review of material led himself, the labour relation coordinator and city solicitor to agree “that the most recent ruling has not changed the legal landscape in the interpretation of a certified construction employer.’”

Niro also said the city would have to “change its long-standing practice of collecting compensation for various pieces of work relating to construction and repairs alike.

I believe a breakdown of the estimated costs of an appeal should have been provided council and I would have liked more information on what the ministry had to say in regard to why an appeal had little chance of success.

And I didn’t know the city was collecting compensation from work it did on some projects. This line in Niro’s report certainly deserved more explanation because this says the city is acting as a construction employer.

If it had come up long ago that this was the case, I think it would have been brought to a halt long ago. It is hypocritical to accept compensation and yet say you are not a construction employer.

So I say change the practice, now, because it is still unfair to freeze out non-union contractors. That is what has to be addressed.

I note Niro said some unionized businesses are also blocked from bidding on city projects. That also deserved some explanatory information.

Anyway, none of this is enough to persuade me that the overall situation is not unjust.

I have long thought that rather than the few cities facing such restrictions, specifically Toronto, Hamilton and Waterloo, that the fight should be on a provincial level.

It should be taken by the Association of Municipalities of Ontario into the corridors of power in the provincial legislature, which would possibly provide a little more punch than the private member’s bill put forward by Harris.

On it, you may recall, Premier Kathleen Wynne called on her members to join with the NDP to defeat it.

I thought it might be a good project for Coun. Ross Romano to take on, considering he is the Progressive Conservative nominee for the byelection to fill the seat vacated by David Orazietti.

I suggested to him in an email that he was in a unique position in that if he were elected and his party was as well that he would have direct access to the corridors of power and could actually get something done about this.

But, since he didn’t reply to my email or a phone message I left, I guess so much for that thought.

I don’t think we will have much thought given to the matter by the NDP nominee, Coun. Joe Krmpotich, since he was on the one who sought deferral of the motion to back Harris’s bill when it came before council in 2013.

He wanted more information as to how it would affect the Sault, something then CAO Joe Fratesi could have told him in a couple of minutes.

The same probably can be said for Debbie Amaroso, who is seeking the Liberal nomination. After all, she was sitting in the mayor’s chair when Harris’s bill essentially was discarded.

I realize with the attendant cost, or at least what Niro says the cost would be, that with the city in dire financial straights it may not be a good time to try another appeal, but I would hate to see the issue slide.

Doug Millroy can be reached at dmillroy@gmail.com

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