As if the economic slowdown hasn’t been hard enough on drywall contractors in Toronto’s residential sector, times could take a turn for the worse. That is because the unions representing tapers and installers were in a position to strike when this column was published in June.
The divide between labor and management over the three-year collective agreement is wide on two key points. On one issue the unions want about a 15 percent wage hike over three years. Hugh Laird, executive director of the Interior Systems Contractors Association of Ontario, calls it "outrageous.” Management was more apt to agree to a wage increase of less than half that number.
Bill Nicholls, business manager of the Painters and Allied Trades Local 1891, says the 15 percent hike is reflective of the "enormous profits” builders make in Toronto. "For years we have settled for far less than other construction markets in Canada while builders have seen huge profits. Our members want some of that back because the homebuilding industry is on a comeback.” The Painters union represents tapers and the Carpenters & Allied Workers Local 675, represents drywall installers.
There is an even bigger issue that wages that is dividing the two sides. Right now tapers in lowrise residential pay $16.50 plus tax per box of drywall compound, but employers want that number upped. In the high-rise residential sector companies want tapers to pay for the compound that had been supplied to them free under the old collective agreement.
"It’s unacceptable. Builders need to understand that we need to cover our cost of materials, and they are increasing,” says Nicholls, adding that the drywall sector isn’t even getting paid extra for specialty work.
If a strike is called, it won’t drag through the summer because provincial legislation dictates that an arbiter be appointed by June 15 to reach a settlement. By July the agreement should be in place. The last strike was in 1995 and it crippled the industry, according to Laird.
Unlike the residential sector, the ICI sector in Toronto signed its collective agreement without dispute. That’s no surprise because it is not as fragile or volatile as the homebuilding sector where an impending hike in interest rates could bring the home builders to their knees in short order.
The deal maker in the ICI agreement was a 7.31 percent hourly increase over three years, which translates to a $3.50 hourly increase in the Greater Toronto Area over the 36-month agreement commencing May 1, 2010. Laird says that employers had been hoping for a 6 percent increase (in line with the cost of living increase).
In exchange for agreeing to the increase, unionized contractors landed a pivotal concession from the union that could level the playing field for them working in fields that are usually the sole domain of the non-unionized sector, Laird says. Schools, big-box retail and strip malls are examples. "In those sectors they (union) agreed to give us 44 hours a week with time-and-a-half pay after that for overtime and no travel allowance,” Laird says. Under the previous agreement a regular work week was 40 hours with double rates for overtime and a travel time allowance.
"It is a huge concession on the union’s part,” says Laird, noting it could mean a "big addition” to the work portfolio of the unionized sector. "Everywhere we put up new houses there are always strip malls, always schools and big box retail plazas. It is an area of work that we used to do but we lost over the years with the increasing non-union presence.”
Nicholls isn’t as convinced that the non-union presence is as dominant: "We do a good share of the work he (Laird) is talking about. It all depends on which contractor is awarded the work.”
Don Procter is a free-lance writer in Ontario, Canada.