Local unionized labour must be used to build new hospital

First published:
May 23, 2001

The battle over the use of unionized labour to build Northumberland’s new hospital is about to take a nasty turn, if something is not done quickly to relieve the tension between labour leaders and hospital representatives.

The fight began when the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, Lake Ontario District Council, local 1071, took aim at one of the contractors who has pre-qualified to bid on the $53-million contract for the new hospital. Kenaidan Contracting Limited, of Mississauga, has been put under a microscope because it is totally non-union. Its record has come under fire, along with accusations that it should not have pre-qualified.

The other companies – Ellis-Don Corporation, of Mississauga; Eastern Construction Company Ltd., of Toronto; VanBolts Construction Corporation, of Markham; Bondfield Construction Company Ltd., of Concord; Walter Construction (Canada) Ltd., of Toronto; and PCL Constructors Canada Inc, of Mississauga – have not received such intense scrutiny because contracts have been already signed with some or all of the unions.

Hospital executive director Joan Ross said last week the criteria for pre-qualification is objective, therefore there is no reason for anyone to worry. It’s set out by the province, ensuring any contractor – union or non-union – is treated fairly, she said.

New hospital committee chairman Don Morrison has given assurances to members at a recent hospital meeting that he is satisfied, she said. Project manager Don Wilson has responded appropriately to the union’s concerns and has done research on all the companies, she added. Unionized labour will be used for electrical, mechanical and plumbing. The only union to be left out is the carpenters, she said. But until the final tender is awarded, the carpenters could be included, as well. It’s just not locked down.

“We are trying to do the best job, at the best price, for the whole community,” she said.

For Joel Neville, business representative for the carpenter’s union, there is no middle ground. Getting jobs for up to 100 members from Northumberland County on the hospital project is his only goal. He promises to take the hospital to the Ministry of Labour to appeal the pre-qualification process. If his members are not going to be used, then he will ask all unionized workers to withhold donations to the hospital. He would also take it one step further, threatening to withdraw donations to the United Way, as well.

“If you kick people in the rump, you are going to get kicked back,” he said.

It might be easy to dismiss the union’s complaints, accept they have a lot of research and records that can be put on the table. Those do raise some questions. So far, the hospital has not put one piece of its research or records on the table. The questions being raised are legitimate, just as anyone’s concerns about any aspect of this important project should be answered clearly and with authority. To reduce this to a union’s gripe is unfair. Certainly Morrison has addressed the hospital board, but he certainly has not addressed the public in a comprehensive way. And, as the community sits on the sidelines watching all this, it is reasonable to expect some direct answers.

Both sides are being incredibly arrogant.

Considering the fund-raisers need another $2.5 million or less to reach their target, making sure the process is open, transparent and accountable should be a number one priority. There are plenty of hardworking, middle-class people who will be asked to contribute.

The hospital should seek written consent from the pre-qualifiers to make all documents public and provide the community with records to show safety and past performance of all companies involved. If they refuse, then the community should question those companies. Then this should be made available to the public at the hospital and local municipal offices.

As for the union, it needs to tone down. A threatening, hostile approach is not going to win the support of the community at large. Unionized workers are going to be used. We need to know why carpenters have been left out. Everyone understands the union needs to go all out to protect its members or else they would be failing in their job and not worth the union dues members pay. If the union’s concerns are legitimate, then they will carry the day when everything is made public. If they are wrong, then their support of the project should be as public as their complaints.

Finally, the pre-qualification of a non-union shop raises other questions. Non-unionized workers are cheaper for many reasons, including lower wages, a lack of training, lack of safety standards and host of other things associated with unionized labour. This can be a more expensive, but not necessarily. So some managers will bring in a non-union shop to force unionized operations to put in lower bids and keep the tender price down.

This is another reason the entire process must be transparent and accountable. As a community, we want to make sure – especially when it comes to a public contract for a public building being paid for by taxpayers – that the wages are fair, everyone is properly trained, the site is safe and the people working know how to be safe. There should be opportunities for apprentices, since the youth in our community need to be included.

Let’s not get lost in arrogance and fiscal myopia. Projects of this size do not come along often. Maybe we need to take a few extra steps that are beyond the rules and regulations bureaucrats love to hide behind. Until that is done, then maybe nobody should be giving a cent to the fund-raisers.

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