Moncton Local 1555 is a small local union. It is tucked into three counties in southeastern New Brunswick and has 135 members. Growth has not come easy.
When it reached an agreement with a small contractor two years ago, it was its first successful organizing campaign since 1969, said Jason Hamilton, who was hired as the local’s first full-time organizer in 2018.
That set the stage for a successful organization at East Current Electric, a major employer in the area, earlier this year. Local 1555 saw its market share grow by 10%, and members now can get hired on for a major hospital project in Moncton. It was a top-down effort, and the company voluntarily recognized the IBEW as the bargaining unit.
“I think the biggest lesson we’ve learned is diplomacy and patience might not be sexy, but I like to think we’re 2-0 with a walk at the labor board,” said Hamilton, referring to an unfair labor practice claim Local 1555 filed in 2021 that returned a fired worker to a job with back pay.
“We’re not just firing from the hip,” Hamilton added. “We’re trying to build relationships, as opposed to trying to force it against people’s wills.”
This is the kind of growth story First District Vice President Russ Shewchuk wants to hear more of.
Shewchuk, who was elected at the 40th International Convention in May, has instructed each Canadian local to meet with five companies in their jurisdictions that are not IBEW signatory contractors or partners, said Mark Watson, Shewchuk’s executive assistant. He also strongly recommended that each local have at least one representative at the Membership Development Conference in August.
The First District is having its own Membership Development Conference in March 2023, Watson said. Locals will share what went right and wrong and what obstacles need to be overcome to persuade a company to partner with the IBEW, Watson said.
Organizing has been the lifeblood of the IBEW throughout its 131-year history. But it is receiving even more emphasis in Canada because of the First District’s declining numbers in recent years. It fell about 13 percent after January 2018 but has shown a slight uptick this year.
“It’s priority No. 1, 2 and 3,” Watson said when asked about Shewchuk’s top objectives since taking office.
Market forces in Canada have made retention of members more difficult in recent years. Construction of the massive Muskrat Falls hydroelectric plant in Newfoundland and Labrador, which employed 3,500 members at one point, has largely wrapped up. Oil prices plummeted a few years ago, driving members away from the oil sands in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Many moved on to other jobs before the trend started to reverse itself.
But that puts organizing even more on the front burner, especially since the Liberal Party has been in power on the federal level since 2015. Without an increased market share, Canadian local unions and their signatory contractors will be at a disadvantage compared to nonunion competitors, Watson said.
“Organizing can be hard and every campaign might not be successful, so for some people, it isn’t something that they want to make a priority,” said Watson, a former business manager at Kitchener, Ontario, Local 804. “That’s not the message now from Russ and the district level. We need to make organizing a priority by investing our time and resources.”
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Local 625 Business Manager Tom Griffiths, who was elected Canada’s representative to the International Executive Council alongside Shewchuk at the 40th International Convention in May, said the province has seen significant changes in the construction industry.
(left) This project on Bishop Street in downtown Halifax, Nova Scotia, is one of many residential projects Local 625 has worked on in recent years. Flickr/Creative Commons photo by A Disappearing Act.
Nova Scotia was once a manufacturing hub, thanks largely to nearly 100 paper and pulp mills and a robust refining industry. But the mills have closed or moved away and the Sable Offshore Energy Project closed in 2019, putting a big dent in the manufacturing market, Griffiths said.
So, Griffiths and his staff tried something that had largely been forgotten by not just Local 625 but many construction locals in their jurisdictions over the years: the housing market.
The strategy looks to be working. Despite the losses in manufacturing, Nova Scotia is booming economically because so many Canadians are relocating there due to the natural beauty, more chances to telework and lower housing costs compared to most of the country.
Population jumped 5% from 2016 to 2021, according to Statistics Canada. Halifax, the provincial capital, saw its population jump nearly 14% in the same period, to 470,000.
Griffiths said at least 10 high-rise condo or apartment buildings are always under construction. After just a few years, Local 625 has about 33% of residential market share in the province, he said. The goal is to double the number of hours worked for the local, which currently has about 800 construction members.
“It’s not been an easy shift,” he said. “The [contractors] that have been nonunion in the sector, it’s the wild, wild west. When they were organized, they suddenly had to pay benefits and union training funds.”
Griffiths said he and others have had to fight against an attitude that it’s best to concentrate on keeping the current work instead of bringing in new contractors.
“The [nonunion contractor] is eating your lunch,” he said “He’s taking your work away and our work away. The only way to fix him is to rope him in. You can’t milk the cow when it’s running wild in the fields.”
Across the country, Kamloops, British Columbia, Local 993 has used the massive liquified natural gas facility under construction in Kitimat to provide more opportunities for members. It’s the largest private investment in Canadian history at CA$40 billion and employs 600 to 700 IBEW members during construction, Business Manager Glen Hilton said.
(above) Housing for workers constructing LNG Canada’s liquified natural gas facility in Kitimat, British Columbia. The plant has had a positive impact on organizing work at Kamloops Local 993. Flickr/Creative Commons photo by Darryl Franklin.
But Hilton is equally excited that Local 993 reached a maintenance agreement with the facility, which will ensure that 30 to 40 members have full-time work at the plant after it is finished for at least six years.
“That was a significant victory for our side,” Hilton said. “The LNG and petrochemical industry can do pretty much what they want. We’ve shown through our construction members that we can do that work safely and efficiently.”
Everyone leading organizing efforts agreed on one thing: Members often are the best organizers themselves. They encourage members to be supportive of organizing efforts and to speak up to their local union leaders if they see a company or potential partner in their community that could be successfully organized.
Hamilton noted that Local 1555 was helped in its organizing effort at East Current by a few members getting work at the hospital site when it was nonunion and spreading the word about the benefits of IBEW representation.
When asked if they were “salters” — a term usually used for union members who work on a nonunion site to build support for an organizing effort — Hamilton called them “quiet supporters” instead. “We did a lot of information gathering behind the scenes,” he said. “Because our local is relatively new to organizing, it’s still a challenge to embrace the idea. As we move along, it likely will get a little bit easier.”