The Toronto Star


Angry Unionists Picket City Hall, Confront Council


March 24, 1999

Sault Ste. Marie, a "city built on labour," is headed for a showdown with trade unions over its move to get out of a requirement that contractors use union labour on city projects.

About 200 angry union members picketed city hall on Monday night and later packed a council meeting. "Labour is united on this issue and is ready to give the city a fight the likes of which they've never seen," Bill Suppa of Local 1036, International Labourers' Union, told councillors.

City council is moving to use Bill 31, passed last summer by the Mike Harris government.

It permits non-construction employers - primarily private corporations, but also municipalities and school boards - to obtain exemptions to agreements that previously governed direct and subcontracted work.

Charging that "there's an old boys' club manipulating city contracts," Suppa told councillors: "You might all put Harris camp stickers on your foreheads."

Mayor Steve Butland then cut off Suppa's microphone, citing a rarely enforced procedural bylaw that limits speakers to five minutes. "To criticize is fine, but this appeared to be a form of intimidation," Butland said yesterday.

The former New Democrat MP is in a minority on council in opposing the city's bid to get out of its agreement with the labourers' and carpenters' unions."I don't know if the impact is as great as the unions say it will be, but it's a symbolic thing," Butland said in an interview. "I certainly told council, it's a proud labour city, don't go there."

The controversy has prompted the local labour council to pull out of the committee drafting a strategic plan for the city's future. "This is a city that was built on labour," labour council president Dan Lewis said in an interview, adding that what is particularly galling is that council voted to apply to the Ontario Labour Relations Board for decertification behind closed doors with no prior consultation. 'I don't know if the impact is as great as the unions say it will be, but it's a symbolic thing.' Steve Butland, Sault Ste. Marie mayor.

Bill 31 broke new ground with the concept of non-construction employers, which does not exist in labour law anywhere else in Canada, said John Cartwright, business manager of the Central Ontario Construction Trades Council.

Its purpose is to put an end to a principle that employers would not be allowed to duck their union contracts by subcontracting work to non-union employers, he said.

The provincial labour board has yet to bring down any ruling under Bill 31, although it has had applications from several corporations, as well as Sault Ste. Marie, to be declared non-construction employers, Cartwright said.

Applicants include the Toronto-Dominion Bank and Hudson's Bay Company, Cartwright said.

With files from Karl Sepkowski