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Hammering away 

A carpenter’s union is coming to the aid of non-unionized workers on a downtown construction site. Erica Butler finds out why.

For going on 10 weeks, members of the Carpenters, Millwrights and Allied Workers Union have been regularly picketing a construction site at the old YWCA lot on the south end of Barrington Street, protesting the contractor’s use of non-union labour to build a new seven-story luxury apartment complex at the site.

“We believe that the carpenters down on that job site aren’t getting paid the wages and benefits that you would normally see out there,” says union organizer Cathy Pike. “We’re here to help them get what they deserve.”

Pike says that non-unionized workers at the YWCA site are starting at roughly $14/hour, while union carpenters would be making $15/hour to start, plus vacation pay and benefits. “If you took one of our guys just coming off the street,” says Pike, “they get a pension after so many hours, and they get their medical and their dental. We set the rate and everybody knows when they go out this is what they’re going to get. But we don’t set it if it wasn’t able to be given by our contractors.”

The carpenters’ union negotiates its labour contract with the Construction Management Bureau, an association of Nova Scotian contractors. About 100 contractors participate in the process and hire unionized carpenters. The advantages for the worker are clear, says Pike. “Every carpenter that works for every one of those contractors knows what their set rate is going to be when they go on the job,” says Pike. “They know they’re going to be able to get a pension. They know they’re going to be able to get benefits.”

Pike also feels that the union system has benefits for contractors and developers when it comes to safety on job sites and quality of workmanship. “What happens with non-union contractors is that a lot of times they’ll exploit people that aren’t trained, aren’t skilled, and don’t really know a lot about carpentry because it’s not a certified trade,” says Pike. The union provides training for members.

“Our union contractors can do the work and pay their union carpenters the rate, and still make a profit at the end of the day,” says Pike. Which means that in the case of non-union construction, says Pike, “somebody’s actually doing very well. If it’s not the contractor, then it’s the developer.”

In mid-December, the Halifax Coalition Against Poverty joined union members in a picket on Robie at the offices of the Lawen Group, headquarters to Dexel Developments, responsible for the YWCA site project.

Why is an anti-poverty group known for supporting low wage workers and welfare recipients coming out to help protest the difference between $14/hour and $15/hour starting wages?

“HCAP recognizes the value of a living wage,” says member Cole Webber. “When there are companies, in this case Dexel Developments, who want to hire contractors who refuse to hire union people, that just drives down average wages across the board. We see that as a negative thing, and that’s why we’re here.”

“The union movement,” says Webber, “has been responsible for winning living wages for a certain sector of the population, and that’s a valuable thing for society. We want to see more workers unionized.”

A representative from Dexel construction could not be reached before press time.

Anyone can join the carpenters union. The Nova Scotia and PEI council is made up of about 2,200 members. And just in case your vision of carpentry was developed while watching Pinocchio, we’re not talking thousands of Geppettos here. Workers in the carpenters union do everything from form work (building the wood forms for cement to be poured into), to dry walling, cabinetry, roofing and siding. The union also includes millwrights (industrial mechanics) and other allied workers, like factory furniture builders.

“People are always talking about skilled labour and how there’s a shortage,” says Pike. “Well, when it started out, it wasn’t that there was a shortage; it was that they didn’t want to use skilled labour because they thought that it too much. But at the end of the day, it cuts down on safety risks, it makes production better.

“We are going to be coming into a crunch at some point. That’s why we’d like to have more people in the union, to get them trained so that when the other jobs come up we’re there.”

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