On the morning we met up with LiUNA’s Joseph S. Mancinelli, International Vice President and Regional Manager for Central & Eastern Canada for an update on the union’s wide assortment of nationwide projects, it was evident his day was already in full swing, having had several important meetings wrapped up with several more to come in the afternoon, including an appearance at one of the many fundraisers the Labourer’s International Union of North America generously supports. Such is the daily business life for the leader of Canada’s largest building trade union. Throughout the hectic scheduling, Mancinelli evokes a constant level of calm, always smiling and displaying a passion and devotion for his job that is impossible not to observe.
During a previous one-on-one discussion with Mancinelli, LiUNA was at that time the fastest growing union of construction, waste management, show service and healthcare workers throughout all of Canada. Fast forward nearly 18 months and the organization remains at the top and continues to grow at a rapid pace.
With more than 110,000 members across Canada working in construction, waste management, service and healthcare, LiUNA has a vested interest in the strength of the Canadian infrastructure sector.
Mancinelli and LiUNA are lobbying intensely for increased spending on infrastructure projects not only because it provides work to the membership, but because there is a genuine massive problem facing southern Ontario – namely gridlock. It’s a scourge that is fast becoming a more significant transportation nightmare with each passing day. Notably bad is the drive between the Golden Horseshoe corridor between Oshawa and Niagara Falls, with the worst being the commute from Hamilton to Toronto.
On a related matter, Mancinelli recently attended a symposium hosted by the Toronto Region Board of Trade where he was told by provincial government officials that the mid-peninsula corridor was effectively dead. The plan instead is to widen the QEW beyond the current six lanes.
“They should build the mid-peninsula corridor highway and absolutely outlaw trucks on the QEW and the 401,” Mancinelli declares. “If you take the trucks off those highways you’d be amazed at how traffic would flow so much better. “You’ve got the QEW that goes through the most fertile land that we have in Canada and they put a highway through it. Meanwhile there is land above the escarpment that is not fertile. Why not build the highway there? That’s just bad planning. You have commercial, light industrial and subdivisions going in down there.”
Fengate Capital is LiUNA’s investment arm for infrastructure and real estate and Mancinelli is quick to recognize their critical importance in developing the organization’s business plan into the future.
“They’ve done an excellent job of plugging us in to both. We’re anticipating that the next big investment will be in transportation infrastructure,” he says. So, we went from social infrastructure, which is the hospitals and courthouses, and now we’re moving into transportation, such as the Gardiner Expressway, where something needs to be done. Whether it’s a tunnel or bridge, or a combination of the two is still uncertain.”
In addressing the worsening gridlock involving the Gardiner Expressway and its crumbling structure, Mancinelli is confident that Toronto Mayor John Tory and his regime have taken the dilemma very seriously and is confident something will move forward during this term of office.
“What it is, I’m not sure,” he reflects. “There have been tunnelling studies that could open up other development opportunities and would transform the way Toronto looks. It needs to be a system that actually works.”
Meanwhile there have been renewed rumours that the twinning of the Peace Bridge international crossing at Fort Erie, Ontario and Buffalo, New York may once again be coming back on the table. If that is the case, LiUNA would stand to be a major player in such a large construction project, where truck traffic entering and exiting Canada is often ground to a halt due to the sheer volume awaiting international customs’ clearance.
Despite an obvious ability to be able to negotiate and execute strategic plans, while being equipped with loads of political savvy, Mancinelli has never had any aspirations to run for political office because he knows the stonewalling and delays would be infuriating.
“I’m asked at elections and have been approached by all three parties,” he confirms. “We’re a very mainstream, centrist union. Right now I have a larger constituency than any of the ridings have. I have 110,000 members. If you multiply that by an average of three per family, you are at about 330,000 people. I would never abandon this constituency to go and run in a political riding. Secondly, I find the vast majority of politicians to be inactive – and they are very self-serving.”
While Mancinelli has no desire to be directly involved in the political realm, in an abstract way he gets pulled in anyhow as part of his executive role with LiUNA where he must lobby government officials for transportation, integration and infrastructure improvements. But that’s as close as he cares to get. The federal government still has a lot of work to do on its infrastructure plan. The good news is that a substantial amount of funding has been put aside. Mancinelli is optimistic that many of the infrastructure projects will be fast-tracked as promised by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau as part of a conscious effort to kick-start the lagging economy.
“Six hundred million dollars of the previous government’s infrastructure money was not spent,” Mancinelli reveals. “I don’t know why they wouldn’t have spent it, especially with an election. I think that money will be earmarked for shovel-ready projects that really need to get started as soon as possible.”
Funding for this phase would concentrate solely on major projects, such as water treatment plants, roads or bridges – serious infrastructure that requires immediate attention and without which is having a negative impact on the national economy. On the side of social infrastructure, courthouses may also need to be built.
It has been widely anticipated that the second phase of the federal infrastructure funding will be rolled out over a three-year period. Mancinelli believes Ottawa will become involved with a significant percentage stake in many infrastructure projects but that it will seek participation from municipalities, the provinces and the private sector to offset costs and mitigate risk.
“The P3s that we’ve been involved with provincially would be a good model to expedite projects because you can do so many at one time,” Mancinelli says. “Look at how many hospitals Ontario built within a three-year period. That’s billions of dollars if you total it all up. The one in Oakville is gigantic and is one LiUNA participated in and we’ll stay in for the next 20 years in that project and get a return on our investment.”
Mancinelli is often taken aback by some municipalities that almost seem to be an anti-development sentiment, which only serves to delay progress for work that ultimately must be done.
“Development is going to pay taxes at the end of the day,” he says. “Instead, we often see one roadblock after another.”
The Lister Block in Hamilton, which was one of LiUNA’s big projects in the city, resulted in the organization renovating the most infamous, derelict building in the city and fixing it up with a spectacular restoration job. The City of Hamilton wound up purchasing it because extra space became necessary for tourism and several other municipal departments. But Mancinelli and LiUNA have more ideas.
“We still own the land next door where we want to put up a 20-storey student housing complex, which is in huge demand. McMaster University and Mohawk College both desperately need student housing,” Mancinelli notes.
But the seemingly endless roadblocks and time involved to move the process along becomes painstakingly frustrating, because as Mancinelli notes, the clock is always ticking, and time is money.
“We have to have the project finished well in advance of a school year so we can market the facility to get students in. If you finish late, you miss an entire year, and therefore there is no revenue and profits,” he points out.
In order to hit the September, 2017 school year Mancinelli says that shovels need to be in the ground almost immediately. But it’s still in the hands of City Hall. It’s a prime example of how streamlined processes within government are essential in order to maximize the potential for development and that there is obviously still a long ways to go at this point.
Expanding the P3 Model
Despite many other unions shying away, Mancinelli is a big proponent of the P3 model. A lack of understanding leads to a misnomer that such projects amount to privatization as opposed to a partnership. Admittedly, the Highway 407 project was a P3 and it ended badly, but that was based entirely on a bad decision by the provincial government to sell the money-making thoroughfare to a private Spanish-led consortium to generate quick cash.
“It’s left a bad taste in people’s mouths because the profits go offshore,” Mancinelli notes. “Selling it was clearly a mistake.”
The sale of Highway 407 was not a true reflection on the P3 process but instead was the failure of the provincial government to retain a valuable asset. On the other side of the fence, North York and Oakville are examples of municipalities that now have beautiful state-of-the-art hospitals that didn’t previously exist thanks to the process. These new facilities are creating thousands of jobs whether it’s in construction or the medical doctors, nurses and specialists as well as cleaners and maintenance staff.
About $125 billion in infrastructure money has been earmarked by the Ontario government for development over the next 10 years. Add in money from Ottawa and there will be a tremendous amount of infrastructure work being developed over the next decade.
“LiUNA is going to be a part of it. Our pension plan has made some exceptional returns by investing in these types of projects. We put our people to work building them and those people put money back into the pension plan,” Mancinelli notes.
The LiUNA Pension Fund of Central and Eastern Canada (LPFCEC), receives contributions from construction and service employees that are building Canada’s roads, residences, tunnels, pipelines and hydro-electric facilities, and are employed in our health care industry, among other sectors.
Despite an overall economy that has been in the doldrums for the past couple of years, LiUNA’s pension plan has bucked the negative trend and provided excellent returns. As of 2015, LiUNA has one of the top ten fastest growing multi-employer pension plans in the country.
“In 2014 we did a 14.6% return, which is fabulous,” Mancinelli says. “Everybody looks at the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan as the benchmark and they did 10.2%. Our plan is in exceptional shape. We were the only pension plan in Canada that has its own infrastructure fund.
In less than 18 months the value of the pension fund has increased from $4 billion to $6 billion. Over the last decade, the LPFCEC has grown in both value and diversity of assets, providing their membership with a retirement commitment that they can count on for the duration of their senior years as well as a legacy of important infrastructure projects that they helped build for Canada. Portfolio diversification has been instrumental in the positive results. Oftentimes, pension plans tend to be heavily loaded with the traditional methods of fixed income: equities, bonds and stocks. LiUNA has expanded horizons, and the results have been tremendous.
“We’re doing well at a time when a lot of other pension plans are not,” Mancinelli remarks. “We’ve done lots of alternative investments, whether it’s in real estate, infrastructure or land development, it offset the dismal performance of the stock market. Thank god we did that back in 2008. I can’t take the credit for that – the board as a whole takes that. We have good consultants, actuaries and legal team. We’re very happy.”
Labourers Pension Fund will be paying pension benefits to members for many years into the future, quite possibly for 100 years or more. As a result, the key objective of the investment program is to help the plan meet its long-term funding needs.
In the U.S. there are 11 million undocumented workers. It’s nowhere near that level in Canada, but nonetheless there are some people who find themselves in such a dire situation. Mancinelli would like to see those hard working people become naturalized citizens, believing that if they are contributing to the economy they should not face the fear of possible deportation. Most had VISAs and just wound up staying longer than expected, especially those who wound up having children in Canada. As Mancinelli notes, they are paying taxes but not receiving the protections afforded to Canadian citizens.
“We told Minister of Immigration John McCallum that LiUNA is willing and anxious to work with the federal government to find solutions,” he says. “If you are a member of LiUNA and are one of these undocumented workers you are going to trust our organization before you trust an immigration officer on going through the process. We can assist in facilitating these people into the fold much better than the government.”
Another national initiative taken on by LiUNA is possibly assisting the federal government in finding lodging for refugees, including 25,000 that recently came from Syria. The union has one of the largest affordable housing portfolios in the province.
“We’ve been at it since 1979 through the federal programs. When the feds downloaded everything to the provinces we continued on that route. In fact, our organization that I chair, called LiUNA Hamilton Association, has about 800 units here. Some of the very first ones we did with the federal government are coming due now. What we can do is use the proceeds of those projects to build new housing because the mortgages have expired.”
The larger issue after housing the immigrants and having them learn to speak English is where they are going to work. Mancinelli says some will jump into the construction industry so training will be available. In the Middle East working in construction is not a popular choice because the pay is very low. But here in Canada, construction workers can make an excellent living.
“Culturally, it’s always been a challenge for people coming from the Middle East,” Mancinelli says. “They’d rather drive a taxi. But this is Canada and their social structure is different from ours. In Canada, construction is a great job. Members have wonderful homes and they can put their children through university.”
Current Major Projects
LiUNA just recently completed a colossal real estate transaction – the DeGroote portfolio along the QEW. The transaction came about after the DeGroote family decided it wanted to divest itself of that portfolio in order to move on to other developments.
“It’s a Triple-A portfolio in Burlington with fabulous tenants in two large white buildings right along the highway,” Mancinelli says. “Then in Oakville there are the glass towers that look like two inverted pyramids and a couple of other buildings along the highway corridor. We have tenants such as Hatch, SNC and other top-tier companies. Those kinds of investments are great because you’re not going to lose on real estate with that type of value attached.”
The commercial side of LiUNA’s real estate portfolio is very healthy. A couple of years ago LiUNA also started a company called Seasons Retirement Homes and Communities, with residences being constructed across the province. It’s not long-term care or assisted living but retirement living. There is a growth strategy that targets doubling the size of its business within a five-year time frame. Three locations are scheduled for completion this year with another two next year and two more in 2018.
“Seasons has now become the fourth-largest retirement home company in Ontario and we’re growing fast,” Mancinelli says. “There is currently one being constructed along the QEW in Stoney Creek with a beautiful view of Lake Ontario.”
Meanwhile out in eastern Canada LiUNA is very much involved in the Muskrat Falls dam project in Labrador, where some of the construction methods have had to be modified due to the severe cold, where temperatures can reach as low as -40C.
“I had the opportunity of watching a video where they sent a drone over and above it and you could see the entire construction site. Seeing it from above gives you a great perspective on how everything works, including directing the water through the new dam to drive the turbines,” Mancinelli says.
The amount of energy created by the dam at Muskrat Falls is incredible, so much so that it will have the ability to service Quebec and Atlantic Canada. The waterfall and the river is not visually impressive by comparison to the power of Niagara Falls but according to statistics, the force of the river and the energy produced will be superior. Mancinelli expects the civil side of the project, which includes LiUNA 1,000 workers, should be completed towards the end of 2017 or early 2018, which would be followed by the mechanical aspect, which would go on for some time after that, likely reaching to about 2021.
LiUNA has always taken great pride in associating itself with charities and being able to help out wherever and whenever it can. It’s about giving back to the communities where workers and their families live. Many charities receive annual support including the likes of the United Way, Easter Seals and Children’s Wish Foundation.
“On average LiUNA is at around the $5 million per year. One of the big projects was committing $1 million to the new Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg. We just visited recently and made a presentation even although we had made a pledge in advance,” Mancinelli says.
Upon completion of the St. Joseph’s Mental Health facility, LiUNA generously contributed $500,000 to a section dedicated to geriatric outpatient health, which is becoming a larger factor with the union as many of its members are getting older and having to deal with a number of mental health issues including Alzheimer’s, depression and bi-polar disease. The section of the hospital is now known as the LiUNA Seniors’ Outpatient Mental Health Unit.
“We are very proud to be associated with that,” Mancinelli says.
LiUNA is also putting together a major fundraiser with some of the funds going to St. Joseph’s Hospital but also to St. Peter’s Mental Health facility.
“It’s been postponed for now because our guest speaker was Carrie Fisher, (Princess Leia on Star Wars). She has suffered from mental illness for decades. We were going to do it now, in March, but they started shooting the prequel to Star Wars and the dates we set aside are the exact dates she will be shooting. We’ll likely do it in the fall, because we don’t want to rush it.”
LiUNA is also a main corporate sponsor of the Around the Bay Road Race in Hamilton, raising money for St. Joseph’s Hospital. This year’s event takes place on Sunday, April 3 and in fact Mancinelli was heading to a media conference immediately after our interview to discuss the upcoming event. Sera Felice Armenio, who is the head of St. Joseph’s Foundation, just happens to be the daughter of a LiUNA member so the close ties are undeniable.
“She was one of our first recipients of the LiUNA Scholarship Program and now 25 years later is the head of the Foundation and running a multimillion dollar outfit,” Mancinelli proudly says.
LiUNA in 2020
Mancinelli and his team have assessed the next four years, to the year 2020 and they are convinced the outlook for LiUNA is outstanding. The level of construction work that is going to be unveiled throughout the country from B.C. to Newfoundland is set to expand at an explosive rate with a number of mega projects coming online. The drastic drop in oil prices hasn’t affected construction work and it is Mancinelli’s prediction that over the next four years that there will be incredible growth. Immigrants coming into the country will create natural growth with some pockets performing better than others. The expectation is that New Brunswick will not be as strong in terms of rate of growth in comparison to the likes of Newfoundland or Nova Scotia.
“Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area in the next four years will be bursting at the seams with banner years,” Mancinelli confidently predicts. “Membership in the GTHA alone by the end of this year we may have in excess of 65,000 to 70,000 members. That’s significant growth. The last time we talked I think we were in the 40,000s.”
It is reassuring for Mancinelli to know that LiUNA is not only the largest construction union in the country but it’s also the fastest growing thanks in large part to the multiskilling aspect.
“Our workers on average have four different skills. Some might have cement finishing, form setting, carpentry, maybe pipe laying or reading blueprints. Because of that, the productivity goes way up,” he says.
LiUNA also makes a strong effort to work closely with the Aboriginal communities because, as Mancinelli notes, what better place to get new members than right here at home. While the union is happy to do its part in helping the Syrian refugees, he says it’s important never to forget that there are people who are already here in this country who are still having a hard time finding work. The LiUNA training centre has been an excellent proponent for assisting youth from the Six Nations reserve and the retention level is getting stronger all the time.
“We’d like to target Aboriginal communities that don’t have clean drinking water and either build the wells, which we could do fairly easily, or work closely with the federal government in building water treatment plants for the larger communities,” Mancinelli says. “It’s unacceptable that any communities in Canada don’t have clean drinking water.”
Mancinelli firmly believes that building awareness in the community at large and supporting local causes is not only the right thing to do but it raises the overall profile of the organization.
“What goes around comes around,” he says with a smile.