State of the Smaller Union – Bringing Balance, Safety and Strength

The Building Union of Canada
Written by Allison Dempsey

Created to improve employee quality of life and work in the construction industry, the Building Union of Canada held its first meeting in March 2012, and celebrates a decade of success in 2022. With support from the team’s industry and union experience, leadership, and reputation, the BUC has worked tirelessly to protect its members and help them succeed.

Founded by Craig Bromell with the sole objective of improving the lives of men and women in the construction industry, the Union’s mission is to protect, develop, and strengthen the professions of its members while emphasizing the importance of safety and working conditions. This also involves growing as an organization through involving members at all levels, and representing all members by advocating for legislation that affects their working lives in a positive way.

“The Building Union of Canada was created to be a real alternative to the big unions that have dominated the construction industry in Ontario,” says Dannis Koromilas, Director of Communications. “Although public unions in Canada get a lot of attention due to their massive numbers, the construction industry is also an integral part of our economy, and historically, the 100-year-old unions that represented the trades ushered in landmark changes to our industry, which built our cities and made Canada what it is today.”

With an aim to bring back a balanced relationship between the owners/builders and the men and women who actually perform the work that’s essential for bridges, roads, buildings and homes, the BUC was officially certified as a wall-to-wall Trade Union In 2012, meaning it was legally allowed to represent all trades.

“This did not get a lot of notice, as many industry skeptics and some major unions predicted we wouldn’t survive a year,” says Koromilas.

In reality, the BUC just proudly passed its 10-year anniversary on March 27, 2022, and is growing its numbers every month.

“This hasn’t been a meteoric rise for us at the BUC, but simply organic,” adds Koromilas. “Every company that has joined us, whether they have eight employees or 128, has committed to being represented by us with a very intense transparency and frank negotiations; as they, the owners, realized, their employees have a voice and the will to determine how to improve their lives.”

The BUC has defied many odds over its first 10 years, he adds, and its track record at the Ontario Labour Relations Board supports the Union’s claim of conducting itself honestly.

“We have never wasted our members’ money in frivolous exercises for the sake of stalling legal votes that our members have executed to prove their conviction to become members of the BUC,” Koromilas says. “I’m sure a lot of unions that dwarf us in size can’t make that claim, and their legal departments can’t offer any support that they do the same.”

The BUC strives to achieve the best for its employees, whether in terms of working conditions, income, equipment, or retirement benefits, and conducts business in accordance with the ideals vital to the union’s existence and future development in all actions and operations. Its message emphasizes these ideals, and every union decision, action, or endeavour is shaped by them, including total transparency in corporate operations and recognizing and valuing the uniqueness that each of the organization’s members brings.

To that end, members are involved in the planning and running of the union’s operations, and members of the Executive Board are held responsible for their acts or inaction. Above all, the BUC teaches members they are a part of something larger and more powerful than themselves.

Offering a pension fund, a benefit fund, and trustees, the BUC also doesn’t have any outstanding debt, unlike some other unions. The BUC approaches negotiations in a pleasant and proactive manner, building on the organization’s reputation and experience to achieve desired outcomes for all parties concerned. However, when fighting for the best interests of the union members, leaders won’t back down. The BUC also guarantees no strikes and no labour disturbance, preferring to embrace the mentality of working issues out with owners.

Growing from a few hundred members to more than 1,000, the BUC has a lot of room to effect change while also growing its membership, and aims for non-union businesses that have shown an interest in making changes that will benefit from the BUC’s services. The union has also made it a goal to develop in a scalable manner in order to ensure the organization’s future strength and viability without taking on debt.

Perhaps the BUC’s greatest victory on behalf of its membership came at McMaster University around 2014. While the cleaners and custodians of the university were way behind contemporary rates of pay, says Koromilas, more concerning was that the female employees were being compensated approximately 30 percent less than their male counterparts.

“One of our directors, Peter Foulds, met this challenge head on and we succeeded in rectifying this glaring inequity,” he says. “More than 100 employees were awarded not only back-pay, but between 30 percent and 44 percent wage increases in that battle. That might be a high-water mark for us as a union,” Koromilas shares.

“I just want to add that the majority of the workers we went to bat for were single mothers, Eastern European immigrants that were historically intimidated or ignored into never raising a voice of dissent or opinion,” says Koromilas. “I remember that even our President, Craig Bromell, delivered a very direct speech to the entire workforce, and basically told the male employees that if they had a problem with the campaign at hand and what we were trying to accomplish, they could leave then and there.”

Challenges abound in any industry, but for the BUC, one in particular is known as Open Season, when between March 1 and April 30 all unions are allowed to “raid” the memberships of competing unions.

“We feel this is a very negative and toxic exercise, and would welcome a better format for skilled people, or even those just entering the workforce as labourers, to determine their fate,” Koromilas says. “The Building Union of Canada would support any new framework that empowered the members of any union to instigate or at least explore a change in their union representation.”

As it stands, he says, for two months of every three-year cycle, absent or invisible union reps appear on job sites which they have not been present on for 2.5 years, and either promise unrealistic things, or worse, threaten their own members who might consider other options.

“It becomes very clear, and heavily documented year after year, that the Open Season breeds too much unnecessary conflict and intimidation, and ultimately is a waste of time, union resources and money for the sake of keeping the status quo, regardless of the satisfaction or true happiness of those men and women in the field.”

The pandemic has also negatively impacted the industry, and the BUC is determined to help address that going forward.

“Depending on what studies you read in respect to the state of the industry, Ontario alone will need between 175,000 to 300,000 workers to catch up with the need of housing and development, let alone to sustain it right now,” says Koromilas. “So the one thing that all trade unions share now is the lack of a labour force to keep up with the realities of a world-class city like Toronto, let alone the surrounding cities that have been developing faster than at any other time since the 1950s.”

Several other unions have approached the BUC over the years to express interest in forming a coalition in the future, recognizing the BUC’s strength and influence in the industry and its ability to get a better deal for men and women in the trades by creating working connections with its partners. Not only does the BUC save time and money for builders and contractors and improve working conditions and the bottom line for all parties involved; it also saves money for the taxpayers by being able to bid lower to win contracts on government projects.

Rather than fighting with builders or other unions, the BUC believes collaboration is key, an approach that is definitely garnering attention as the organization works to make worker safety a priority while improving salaries and pensions.

“The Building Union of Canada has always prided itself on defending and protecting their members throughout the course of their collective agreements, week by week, month by month,” Koromilas says. “We are small and perhaps boutique, but our members vouch for us, and we have survived and thrived because of the loyalty and faith they have shown us.”

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