Construction worker strike threatens to stall building boom, firms say

crane in Little Italy, Ottawa

Construction projects across the city have come to a standstill after Ontario carpenters walked off the job on Monday, joining crane operators who went on strike last week.

Members of the Ontario chapter of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America began strike action at 12:01 a.m. Monday – a move that affects more than 2,000 workers in the Ottawa area alone and 15,000 across the province in the industrial, commercial and institutional construction sector.

“Nobody wants to go on strike,” Mike Yorke, the president of the Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario, said in a news release last week. “Our union hasn’t been on strike in the ICI sector for 34 years, but our members, from one side of the province to the other, have now voted overwhelmingly to tell their employers that we want a fair deal.”

Money is at the heart of the dispute, with the union calling for a “fair wage increase” to reflect the “spiralling cost of living increases” during the pandemic. 

Construction companies and contractors said the combination of carpenters and crane operators now being off the job has caused many major construction projects to virtually grind to a halt.

Montreal-based developer Marc Varadi, whose firm is currently building a 208-room hotel at 201 Rideau St. for the AC Hotels by Marriott brand, said work on the project is “essentially stalled” as long as crane operators and the carpenters’ council, which represents 17 local unions across the province, remain on strike.

“Unfortunately, it’s entirely out of our hands,” Varadi said in an email to OBJ.

"It’s putting the opening dates of some of those projects in jeopardy. We're sort of between a rock and a hard place."

Chris Brisson, vice-president of finance and corporate services at M.P. Lundy Construction, said the Ottawa company currently has about half a dozen projects on the go, but the job action is slowing some of them to a crawl.

“It’s certainly a concern,” Brisson said. “It’s putting the opening dates of some of those projects in jeopardy. We're sort of between a rock and a hard place.”

Carpenters encompass a wide range of skill sets, he noted, including installing drywall and countertops. While other work such as plumbing and landscaping continues at Lundy’s job sites, Brisson said that could change if current contract negotiations with other unions representing plumbers, ironworkers and other trades break down.

The Laborers’ International Union of North America, whose workers perform tasks such as laying concrete and cleaning construction sites, also rejected a recent contract offer but has agreed to stay on the job while the two sites work on hammering out an agreement.

“Any strike votes on their behalf, it’s certainly going to have an impact on our sites as well,” Brisson said.

John DeVries, the president of the Ottawa Construction Association, said he hopes employers and the unions can reach agreements soon and “minimize the disruption” to the industry, which is in the midst of a building boom.

“Sooner or later, trades being off work catch up to you and it will affect the (completion) schedule,” he said. “We’ll get (deals) done – it’s just a matter of when.”

DeVries said the work stoppage is another challenge for an industry already beset by a shortage of skilled labour, supply chain disruptions and soaring inflation that’s driven up prices of wood, drywall, rebar and a host of other construction materials.

“There’s some pretty tough conversations going on about, ‘Hey, we’ve got a fixed-price contract. You’ve got to deliver,’” he said, adding he’s heard that some suppliers are threatening to sue contractors rather than sell materials at previously negotiated rates. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my career.”

Brisson said construction firms are now ordering supplies months in advance to ensure they arrive on time.

“We still seem to be able to get the materials that we need, but it certainly is taking a lot longer,” he said.

Meanwhile, he said experienced tradespeople are in increasingly short supply, making it that much tougher to get projects done on schedule.

“It is harder to attract good people,” he said. “When you find those good people, you definitely hang on to them. Across the industry, you’re seeing the impact of both the labour and the material (shortage) issues. It’s just a challenging time right now.”

The carpenters’ union and the employers are set to return to the bargaining table on Thursday morning.