It was far from Toronto council’s finest hour.
Nearly two years ago, council voted overwhelmingly not to open up City Hall to bids on large construction projects from all union and non-union shops — becoming the only city in Canada to maintain an archaic closed-shop tendering process.
They had the opportunity to reverse that by opting into Sec. 9 of the Labour Relations Act, which had removed a two-decades-old loophole allowing tendering by only nine select unions on major costly construction projects.
By maintaining the status quo, council left up to $400 million in yearly cost savings on the table and permitted the nine select unions to continue to charge a 20%-25% premium on large builds such as splash pads, community centres, police stations as well as renovations to Union Station and the expensive properties the city is now purchasing for affordable housing and homeless shelters.
They even went one step further, not only ignoring the city manager’s advice to move to open tendering, but voted to let the Labour International Union of North America (LiUNA) join their closed shop. The latter motion was led by Councillor Ana Bailao, who continually bemoans the lack of money for affordable housing.
A national labour union, shut out by the decision, will finally have its day in court Tuesday.
The Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC), which represents 60,000 workers in all trades involved in all sectors of the construction industry, will argue that the commitment to allow LiUNA into the closed shop violates the City of Toronto Act as well as the city’s own procurement rules.
Ian DeWaard, CLAC provincial director, said Monday that unlike Toronto, Waterloo, Sault Ste. Marie and Hamilton opted for open-shop tendering two years ago.
He said in Waterloo, there’s been a “real surge” in competition, with the list of bidders on construction projects increasing from 15 to 74.
He added that the premium being paid for such projects in Toronto is in the range of 20%-25%, according to independent studies.
The city has not actually signed an agreement with LiUNA yet, he said, as city officials appear to be awaiting the outcome of the court case.
Karen Renkema, vice-president of the Progressive Contractors Association — which is supporting CLAC — said council’s decision to invite another union to their “special club” was “incredibly inflammatory” and an “insult to taxpayers.”
Instead of treating every union fairly, Toronto is picking favourites, she said.
She said she feels it’s unethical and ensures that Toronto taxpayers continue to pay too much for construction work.
“We don’t need to get into how much money the city needs to sustain its operations during COVID,” said Renkema, whose organization represents 135 contractors employing a range of members.
Two years later, she says her contractors are still resoundingly shut out from bidding.
The city’s legal officials did not respond by my deadline.
But Councillor Stephen Holyday, one of five who voted two years not to maintain closed-shop tendering, said Monday it was among the “most disappointing outcomes” he’s ever seen at council, especially since public servants had outlined the value of opting-in to Bill 66.
“There was minimal debate and minimal comment,” he said. “I think the taxpayer is behind because of it.”
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Councillor Jaye Robinson, who also supported open-shop tendering, wrote to her constituents at the time that unfortunately city council “ultimately decided to support special-interest groups at the expense of the Toronto taxpayer.”
She called council’s decision on the matter “short-sighted and disappointing,” noting the city “missed a rare opportunity” to achieve significant cost savings, speed up construction timelines and encourage innovation.