A Collective Voice For Ontario’s Construction Workers
Health and Safety, Infrastructure Investments, Apprenticeship and Training, Fair Wages, Diversity in the Industry. On issues that affect their livelihoods, the Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario is the collective voice for the 150,000 construction workers in the province.
History of the Building Trades in Ontario
Formed in 1957, the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario was formed to have a balanced Building Trades voice to the provincial government and to business, as well as to bring Ontario’s perspective to the national table.
Prior to the Council’s creation, there were 14 Local Building Trades Councils throughout Ontario, many of which exist today. All local and provincial councils are chartered out of Washington, D.C. under the umbrella of North America’s Building Trades Unions (American Federation of Labour—Congress of Industrial Organizations).
The Council represents 13 craft unions in virtually every discipline of the construction sector, totalling 150,000 workers throughout Ontario. These members are the men and women who not only build the infrastructure of Ontario’s cities, but make up a part of the community’s economic backbone.
The Council espouses a single goal, which is “to work together with employers and governments to fight for good jobs that working Canadians can depend on to secure meaningful income that supports families and communities.”
Evolution of the Industry
In the twenty years that Patrick Dillon has been Business Manager of the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario, its mandate has never wavered, but it has evolved and changed alongside an ever-changing industry. “Our Mandate is to represent, and give collective voice to construction workers in the province of Ontario, on issues of major concern to the workers,” says Dillon. “There is a myriad of organizations that impact workers’ lives and we try to give voice from the workers to those organizations. That has never changed, but the industry definitely has.”
Dillion uses the Burlington Skyway Bridge to illustrate his point. “When that bridge was built in the late 1950s, it took three hundred workers three years to build. In 1990 when the bridge was twinned, it took 90 workers ten months—and that was with a bridge sitting beside it which made it more complicated.”
New technology means more jobs and opportunity, and it can also present different health and safety challenges. The Council believes the route to safer working conditions is through combined efforts involving proactive government regulations and enforcement, and the proactive involvement of owner-clients, contractors, and workers.
“Ontario, in comparison to other jurisdictions, is doing fairly well [in terms of its safety record], but is still a long way off from where we need to be and can be: zero injuries and zero fatalities,” says Dillon. “I sit on the Prevention Council where we discuss ways of improving health and safety outcomes. The best way to do that is to change the safety culture and mindset of workers and employers so that safety issues are dealt with head-on, not ignored or repressed as they usually are.”
“There’s been a lot of bureaucratic and legislative restructuring over the years but not a lot of improvement in Prevention outcomes,” he continues.
‘Accident’ is not a word Dillon uses. “When you look at the construction industry—or any workplace—when an incident takes place, whether the worker was killed or injured, you see right away that if the proper procedures had been followed that incident would not have happened. With that thought, you look up the word accident and the scenarios do not fit the definition. It’s why we push for proactive prevention, not reactive.”
Examples of regulations and enforcement working—and not—are everywhere. “Take the $4 billion, highly complex Muskrat Falls project in Newfoundland, where 3,000 workers worked over 4 years, and no case of lost time injury or death took place. At the other end of the spectrum, a three-stadium project in Russia took two years to build and reported 17 workplace deaths. There is a clear contrast here: injuries and deaths can be prevented when there is focus from government, business and labour,” says Dillon. “If that focus is absent, you get the Russian outcome because government, business and labour aren’t working together on prevention.”
“We have never made advances, ever, in health and safety by consensus. It has to be bold leadership and decision making to move the yardstick to the next improvement.”
The Council also helps align infrastructure investments with workers, ensuring that there is a trained labour force that can take on massive projects in the province’s pipeline. Since the 2009 recession, Ontario has seen a steady and stable growth rate with close to 700,000 jobs created in that time. The government of Ontario plans to invest $156 billion in infrastructure over the next 10 years.
In March 2017, the government of Ontario credited the Trillium Trust with an additional $538 million in net revenue gains from the sale of Hydro One shares in 2016, contributing towards the total target of $5.7 billion funding to the Trillium Trust which will go towards infrastructure investments.
All this is to say that there are tremendous opportunities for youth to get involved in the trades.
Opening the Door to the Trades
“We want to see increased access to construction employment opportunities by traditionally under-represented communities (Aboriginals, people of colour, women, at-risk youth, returning veterans and reservists),” says Dillon. “We can acknowledge that we have not done a good job on diversity. There is a career for everyone in the trades and certain groups haven’t been given a fair opportunity to access the trades. We are quite open to talking with government on how to fix that.”
Dillon thinks a solution lies in government procurement documents requiring that the workforce reflect “the face of the community” where the project/investment is taking place.
“We want to see a strong, bona fide apprenticeship system run by and for tradespeople,” continues Dillon. The College of Trades which became operational in 2013, is a step in the right direction, giving tradespeople a voice in governing their respective industry (construction, motive power, service, industrial) similar to other professions (teachers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, architects, accountants, etc.).
One way of tackling worker precariousness is by promoting the trades to young people. An apprenticeship is a great way to ‘earn-while-you-learn’ which sets young people on a viable career path. Apprentices earn a sliding scale percentage of their ultimate salary while training, which offers a huge advantage.
“An apprenticeship is a job,” says Dillon. “We need to support employers who invest in their workforce by investing in training. The larger the Underground the economy is, the more pressure there is in fulfilling Ontario’s future workforce needs for construction. The pace of technological change and other forms of innovation require strong investments to bring people up to speed on the latest techniques to maximize productivity and competitiveness.”
Organized labour is at the forefront of securing and defending middle-class working conditions for people, and the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario helps defend those conditions. A vital player in the construction industry, the Council continues to work on behalf of its members.