June 22, 2024

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Vancouver construction sector braces for ‘likely’ concrete strike

The closure of plants two years ago caused cost escalations and delays on all kinds of projects, including housing construction and the $2.8 billion Broadway subway line

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Two years after a strike disrupted Metro Vancouver’s concrete industry, creating major construction delays, local builders are now fearing a possible repeat.

In 2022, a five-week work stoppage was blamed for taking out as much as a third of the region’s concrete supply, causing cost escalations and delays on all kinds of projects including housing construction and the $2.8 billion Broadway subway line.

Now, following a recent strike vote, some industry leaders want the provincial government to take a more active role to prevent another lengthy disruption at the same concrete plants.

On Monday, an X account identifying themselves as members of the Teamsters union local representing Metro workers for Heidelberg Materials, a German multinational company whose subsidiaries provide a significant portion of Vancouver’s concrete supply, said another strike was “likely.” The day before, union members voted 98.6 per cent to authorize their bargaining team to serve 72-hour strike notice if they decide to do so.

Negotiations were set to continue Wednesday, but the Teamster members wrote on Monday that they had “little hope that a fair offer will be presented” by the company.

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This week’s strike vote comes almost exactly two years after workers went on strike in May 2022 at six Vancouver-area concrete plants owned by Heidelberg Materials, soon followed by another six Heidelberg-owned plants stopping work in solidarity. The work stoppage continued for five weeks.

“The impact on the industry was huge” in 2022, said Jeannine Martin, president of the Vancouver Regional Construction Association, which represents about 850 members, most of which are general contractors and trade contractors, in commercial and industrial construction.

“It was impactful across the board,” Martin said. “And if these are public projects like the Broadway subway and the Pattullo (bridge replacement), that impact will fall on the taxpayer.”

Last week, the B.C. Transportation Ministry cited the 2022 strike as one of the factors behind the subway’s completion being delayed until 2027, saying the labour disruption delayed the construction of the launch pad for tunnel-boring machines.

With the 2022 labour disruptions at those 12 facilities taking out about 35 per cent of the local concrete production, the five-week labour action created “ripple effects” that were felt for several months after the strike, said Chris Gardner, president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association.

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Gardner said he believes this potential disruption is serious enough that the province should take a more active role in bringing the parties together to facilitate an agreement.

“There’s no doubt people are concerned we will have a repeat of 2022 and we can’t afford that,” Gardner said. “We have significant upward pressure on construction materials, we have an affordability crisis, we have every single major infrastructure project is over-budget and behind-schedule. The government needs to show some leadership here, they can’t just let the chips fall where they may.”

B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains said his office will “continue to monitor the situation closely,” but will also “respect the integrity of the collective bargaining process, which means allowing the two sides to negotiate freely on their own.”

“The best outcomes result when employers and unions sit down across the bargaining table and work collaboratively towards a collective agreement,” Bains said in an emailed statement. “Mediation service can be offered by the Labour Relations Board if the parties need further assistance.”

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Responding to a request for comment Tuesday, a spokesperson at Heidelberg Materials’ North American headquarters in Texas sent an emailed statement saying the company “is in negotiations with the union today and tomorrow with the goal of reaching a fair and mutually agreeable offer.”

“Since negotiations are continuing, we have no further comment,” the statement said.

Ron Rapp, CEO of the Homebuilders Association Vancouver, said the 2022 strike had a significant affect on residential construction, especially for smaller and medium-sized builders.

“There is some concern among members that this could be a similar circumstance to the last go-round, and everybody will, of course, be hoping for a quick resolution,” Rapp said.

Tuesday evening after negotiations wrapped for the day, Teamsters Local 213 business agent Barry Capozzi said: “We’re trying to get this deal done without labour unrest.”

Negotiations were expected to resume Wednesday.

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