Kingston construction unions hit the picket lines

The concurrent strikes of at least two separate trade unions have put Kingston’s construction industry in a difficult position, with local projects facing potential delays as a result of the work stoppages. Currently, unions representing carpenters and heavy equipment operators across Ontario have hit the picket lines, as members push for higher wages to compensate for increases in the cost of living. 

Members of the Carpenters Union Local 249 in Kingston on the picket line on Thursday, May 12, 2022. Photo by Cody Stafford-Arenburg.

On Thursday, the Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario, United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, announced that carpenters in the industrial, commercial, and institutional (ICI) sector would continue striking after attempts to resume negations failed. 

“On Thursday, May 12, 2022, the Union and employers were in discussion about this; the Union made it clear to the employers that we are ready and willing to return to the bargaining table and that we wanted to recommence negations on Friday… or the weekend or any day next week,” the organization stated in a press release. 

“It is incredibly disappointing that this group of employers wants to hold hostage millions (if not billions) of dollars’ worth of construction, much of which involves critical infrastructure, because they are unprepared.” 

The work stoppage has affected the union’s 14 locals throughout Ontario, including Carpenters Union Local 249 in Kingston, which represents over 500 workers. 

According to Mike Yorke, Ontario Council president, the union has made attempts to get back to the table. “We said, ‘Look, we’re prepared to meet again this weekend.’ … The employer’s position was ‘No.’ They took the position [that] they can’t meet with us next week because they need more time to gather data. Well, you know, we were very frustrated and very disappointed. Why can we not meet and expedite a process of negotiations to get our people back to work? So, unfortunately, that’s where we stand right now. We’re quite disappointed in that, but we’re sending a message out that the carpenters are more than prepared to talk.”

The Carpenters’ Union has been on strike since Monday, as it pushes for a “fair deal” that recognizes the increased cost of living for its members. “Our stumbling block clearly is down to financial compensation,” said Yorke.  

While the union did have a tentative agreement in place with the employers, which would have prevented the strike, its membership rejected the deal, and negotiations stalled. 

“We had a tentative agreement that we, the employers and the union, negotiated and shook hands on. We took that tentative agreement back to the membership, and it was rejected wholeheartedly across the province,” remarked Yorke. 

“So… between the bargaining committee and the membership’s front line experiences in life, it appears that there’s a gap… Basically, they told us loud and clear that we’ve got to go back to the bargaining table, get a better deal, a deal that takes into consideration the cost of living… And so, we’re saying ‘let’s get back to the table, let’s ensure that there’s health in the economy of Ontario, because we owe it to the province.’ We need to find a way forward.”

Considering that ICI construction makes up 1.3 per cent of Ontario’s GDP, Yorke maintained that provincial workers should receive their fair share of compensation. “The carpenter and other tradespeople are building wealth with their muscle, their knowledge, and their skill, two hands every day. And our position [is], isn’t it fair that we deserve a fair share of the wealth that we create every day? I think it’s fair. That’s what our members have told us, and the carpenters’ negotiating team is more than prepared to go back to the bargaining table as soon as possible. And we’re asking the employers to meet us at the table.”

The carpenters’ strike is one of several job actions impacting Kingston’s construction industry, as unions representing operating engineers and heavy equipment operators have also hit the picket lines.

Last week, Local 793 of the International Union of Operating Engineers announced a strike after it failed to reach a settlement with employers. “At our last meeting on Thursday, April 28, 2022, the Employers would not budge on their monetary offer of $5.85 over three years,” said spokesman Danny Celia in a news release. “For members of Local 793, this amounts to between an 8.8 per cent or 9.15 per cent increase depending on the crane or heavy equipment being operated. The Formwork Council broke off negotiations when the Employers indicated they would not budge on this offer.” 

The Local 793 strike includes crane operators, which is likely to have a negative impact on Kingston’s condominium and apartment development projects. The two concurrent strikes in Kingston are part of several job actions taking place across the province as unions work in parallel to achieve a deal for their members and get the vital industry back to work. 

“We’re all working in parallel to each other,“ Yorke said, “but it’s the same principle. And [that] principle is the financial affordability crisis. We are in a union, and the fundamental reason people join a union is to ensure protection for their standard of living for themselves and their families. So, people are using the democratic process that unionism provides to create a better financial deal for themselves and their families.“

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