The Building Union of Canada
As the Building Union of Canada enters its seventh year of operations it has already taken a foothold as one of the leading construction labour unions in Canada, and the journey has really just begun.
Co-founded by brothers Craig and Stephen Bromell, the BUC was officially launched on March 27, 2012 with the primary objective of making people’s lives better. In Ontario alone, construction is a multibillion industry.
The name Craig Bromell is a familiar one, especially to people in the Greater Toronto Area. For many years he was a high-profile police officer who served as president of the Toronto Police Association from 1997 to 2003. Following that, he remained in the public eye serving as a radio host for a popular talk show in Toronto.
Stephen Bromell has been in the construction industry for nearly 20 years, starting in 2000 as a steward for a company that was working on a project with CLAC, another large national labour union. About four years later, Bromell was hired on full-time as a healthcare and construction representative at CLAC and his territory covered literally all of Ontario. Just before leaving his position in early 2012 he was responsible for more than 1,000 members across 20 construction companies. This was also at a time when his brother Craig was finishing up a six-month consultant’s contract with the same union. It was Craig who then approached Stephen about branching off on their own and they’ve never looked back.
The business side of the BUC became an instant success. In the past couple of years the union has grown substantially and continued expansion of its membership seems a certainty. There are no initiation fees for joining the organization and the dues range between a modest 1% and 1.5%.
The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with Stephen Bromell, the BUC’s Secretary Treasurer, about the organization’s tremendous growth and excellent track record.
“I would say at least 90% of our focus is on construction,” confirms Bromell.
The non-union density within Ontario’s construction sector has remained at about 70% for the past few years, which means many workers are earning lower salaries with few or little benefits or pension packages. That is what the BUC wants to change. As such, the executive branch plans to continue to aggressively pursue that substantial percentage of construction workers who are not protected and unionize them for a wide variety of reasons, including assurances that the health and safety for all members is maximized.
“The starting point is always getting workers and their families’ strong benefits and pension plans and we negotiate the rates from there. The priority is to make sure all the members’ families are looked after,” says Bromell.
Despite still being a relatively young organization, the BUC has already made significant gains within the construction labour movement, which obviously pleases Bromell and the rest of the team.
“I would argue that we’re actually doing better than what our goals were,” he remarks. “We brought on Turner Construction, which the sixth-largest construction company in North America. In just the last four or five months we’ve brought on another eight to 10 companies.”
Upon organizing a union within a company there must be a collective agreement, which then requires ratification in a secret ballot. To date, the BUC ratifications have all been well into the 90% approval range.
In Ontario alone construction is a multibillion dollar industry and despite the fact that only an estimated 30% of the industry is unionized, the low percentage is largely due to the fact there are more construction companies sprouting up for business and of course they do not start out with a union environment.
“The percentage is much higher in the City of Toronto. It’s the outskirts, such as north, west and east of Toronto where the density is much lower,” explains Bromell. “We are making a lot of headway. Our companies have been working everywhere from Windsor to Ottawa and to the far north in Thunder Bay.”
Bromell says the partnership model developed by the BUC is very attractive. It provides the ability for a company to continue to grow and keep its people working. It is not about being adversarial but rather working in solidarity as one unit for the greater good of everyone involved.
The BUC has more than 1,000 members but it’s typically a slower time heading into the Christmas season. The peak periods are the spring when it’s estimated the membership could expand to about 1,500.
Bromell believes one of the fundamental differences between the BUC and other unions is the level of excellent service that is provided on a constant day-to-day basis.
“Generally speaking, in construction the members might get a site visit from the union representative once every three to five months. With us, our members see our reps once every three to four weeks,” he says.
The sole purpose of the BUC representatives is to coordinate site visits and communicate with the members and the superintendents to deal with any issues that may arise.
“I don’t think any other union can come even close to the level of service that we provide to our members,” Bromell confidently says. “I’m very proud of what the guys are accomplishing.”
In the realm of construction with so much physical activity and necessary metal acuity, keeping workers safe is always at the very top of the BUC’s list of priorities, which is why the union has a number of training companies working for it to ensure that everyone is working safely and efficiently at all times.
“You want everybody to get home safely to their families,” says Bromell.
Another challenge in the world of construction is the intense competition. With 70% of the construction industry being non-union and journeymen electricians being paid $28 to $31 per hour, the companies that the BUC is organizing must compete with that.
“Our journeymen electricians are earning $39 to $41 an hour and so what we try and do is keep the total package lower and keep the benefits and pension less expensive to help them absorb it and better compete,” explains Bromell.
“In the grand scheme of things our total package is extremely reasonable. All the companies that we’ve been organizing love our model and the way we’ve designed our collective agreements,” he continues.
Older brother Craig Bromell serves as the BUC’s president and handles the lion’s share of the advocacy work and other interests within the public realm, because that has always been his forte and his rolodex of important, influential contacts cannot be overstated.
“He has the connections and resources and a background in dealing with that. He’s in conversations with them quite a bit,” says Bromell. “My job is to focus our guys and ensure we all work as a team to get the organizing and services down pat.”
In less than seven years, the growth of the BUC has been exceedingly impressive. Construction is a primary industry from coast to coast, but with so many opportunities closer to home the BUC’s main objective is to obtain even larger membership numbers within Ontario. However, Bromell acknowledges that certain organic growth opportunities may take them outside of the provincial boundaries, which is definitely something they are quite willing to do and more than capable of expediting if the right situation comes about.
“You want to make certain that you are well anchored in your home province,” he says. “That said we have companies that are bound to us with signatories in Ontario that are starting to look at British Columbia and Alberta and have asked us to come with them. When it’s possible for us to that, for sure we will do it.”
Efficiencies for All
There have traditionally been misconceptions about what the labour movement is all about and what unions bring to the table not only for its members but the companies as well. Bromell says he couldn’t begin to count the number of meetings he’s attended over the past 19 years, but a common theme is that a significant number of company owners are terrified they will lose control of their business if it becomes a unionized environment. A common misunderstanding is that the union will force the business owner to hire certain personnel out of a specific hiring hall. But Bromell says there is more than enough to do at the BUC and there is virtually no desire to take on the responsibility of running other people’s enterprises. Instead, the main goal is to improve efficiencies and policies that will benefit both the workers and companies alike.
“We send companies highly qualified individuals with their resumes so they can pick and choose who they want to hire. There is a negotiated collective agreement in place so the guidelines and rules are consistent for everybody,” he explains.
Bromell also notes the BUC doesn’t have any sub-contracting clauses that other unions have and because of that the companies are able to sub-contract to whomever they choose.
“The reason we developed that approach is so that we could build relationships with the sub-contractors. We are very transparent on everything,” he says.
The responsive, strong, professional team working with Bromell at the BUC office in Toronto provides an outstanding backbone for the organization. As a group they’ve faced challenges at the labour board and come out victorious each and every time. With the BUC there is not the hassle of having to negotiate with six or seven different unions – they provide the complete package.
In addition to Craig and Stephen Bromell, the executive branch at the BUC includes: Dannis Koromilas, director of communications; Peter Foulds, director of operations; Tony Cordeiro, field representative; Anthony Iannuzzi, field representative and recruiter for the electrical and mechanical division; and Alex Bromell, field representative. In being surrounded by such savvy, experienced individuals, Bromell says he has never been so blessed in his life as he is right now with the team he has working alongside him.
“We know it’s about service and partnerships between the employer, the employees and the union. We advocate not only for the employees but for the company also, because if they get more work, it means more work for the employees. Our entire team is dedicated to the big picture and they do a phenomenal job,” reflects Bromell.
The BUC is working on several large-scale initiatives but due to confidentiality constraints Bromell is unable to discuss those topics as negotiations continue to miscdevelop. However, it’s abundantly clear that there are a number of exciting opportunities on the horizon, including the heavy civil sector. Bromell expects to see significant movement in this area within a three-to-six month time frame.
Another expansive initiative that is paying dividends for the BUC is in the electrical and mechanical divisions.
“We have organizing on the go for 15 more companies. All in, we’re probably looking at another 500 members coming our way,” he confirms.
In an ideal situation, Bromell could foresee the BUC having between 4,000 and 5,000 members by the year 2020 – all in construction, with the union taking a front seat on the crucial matter of health and safety for members while at the same time keeping owners, politicians and bureaucrats honest.
“I don’t anticipate it slowing down for a long, long time,” he concludes. “We are all very excited about the future.”