Strikes could delay much-needed housing projects next month, Ontario homebuilders’ group warns

A wave of strikes could delay the construction of much-needed housing in Ontario starting as early as next week, an organization that represents the province’s home builders has warned.

The Residential Construction Council of Ontario (RESCON) says it has advised its members that it’s expecting more than one work stoppage to take place starting on Monday in the low, medium and high-rise residential sectors.

“We hope that there’s deals reached over the weekend and that labour disruptions can be avoided, but we’re not optimistic that all outstanding collective agreements will be resolved.” Andrew Pariser, the vice president of RESCON, said Friday

The warning comes as the province, and especially the Greater Toronto Area, faces an affordable housing crisis and rising real estate prices due to tight supply and high demand. Collective agreements for unionized construction workers generally last three years and many of them expire on April 30. Pariser says this time there’s added pressure to reach agreements partly due to problems brought on by COVID-19.

“We have inflation pressures, we have supply-chain issues — the pandemic, it’s still going on,” he told CBC News. 

“This round probably has more challenges than we’ve seen in the past.”

The warning about possible work stoppages comes as Ontario grapples with an affordable housing crisis, with real estate prices rising due to high demand and a lack of supply. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

As many as 30 residential trades work in residential construction. Some have new agreements in place but others could walk off the job or strikes by other trades could delay their work, Pariser says.

He says other parts of the construction industry could also see strikes as many of their collective agreements also expire at the end of this month, and he warns that could affect timelines for housing projects, as well..

“What is pretty clear is construction is interconnected,” says Pariser. “The impact depends on who goes on strike and how many people go on strike.”

‘We are advocating for our members’

The Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) Local 183, one of the biggest construction unions in the province, represents about 58,000 workers in the GTA .

As of Thursday, Local 183 was negotiating more than 15 collective agreements in the residential construction sector alone, according to Jason Ottey, its director of government relations and communications. 

As of Friday, the local stated on its website that while some agreements have been reached and others are to go through arbitration, at least one trade will be in a legal strike position effective May 1.

“We are advocating for our members and working to get the best deal possible for them and their families,” Ottey said in an email statement.

Since bargaining is ongoing, unions and management can’t elaborate on what they’re discussing. However, throughout the trades, a major issue in negotiations has been wages, particularly with the cost of living skyrocketing in recent months, says Robert Whillians, a lawyer who specializes in construction labour law.

Throughout the trades, a major issue in negotiations has been wages, particularly with the cost of living skyrocketing in recent months, a labour lawyer tells CBC News. (Graeme Roy/Canadian Press)

“One thing that is fueling the requests coming from the union side is some sort of recognition of the role they played over the last couple of years in keeping the construction industry moving,” said Whillans.

“These people showed up and put their health at risk; they think that their compensation should reflect that.”

A December report by the Centre for Future Work shows wages in the industry have largely been stagnating despite construction being one of the few sectors that were productive throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report, commissioned by the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario, shows the value of permits for residential projects grew 19 per cent in 2020 — reaching an all-time record of over $30 billion.

But the report, citing Statistics Canada data, states construction wages in Ontario grew overall by only 1.9 per cent over the past five years, compared to 3.9 per cent for the overall Ontario economy.

Another factor in the negotiations could be the shortage of construction workers, says Whillans.

“The reality is at the moment there are a lot of very large projects ongoing,” he said.

“If we want to keep building, you’re going to need people who know how to do that safely and efficiently.”

Strikes could last until mid-June

Tarion, a consumer protection agency for Ontario homeowners, declined to comment on the possibility of strikes.

However, the agency states on its website that strikes can affect a new homeowner in two ways: it can delay initial construction and delivery of their home, and after they take possession of the house, it can affect the ability of workers to make timely repairs.

The non-profit organization states with over 50,000 new homes built in the province each year, “a great many of them” won’t be affected by the strikes.

Pariser says in parts of the Greater Toronto Area, the Ontario Labour Relations Act allows residential construction strikes to last about six weeks before mandating a return to work and handing over any outstanding disputes to binding arbitration. That means any work stoppages that start in the next few days could be over in mid-June.

Despite this, avoiding strikes altogether would be the best outcome on both sides, Pariser says.

“I think everyone is feeling the pressure and the best outcome is if we all just get deals at the table and we avoid it.”

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