The Labourer’s International Union of North America (LiUNA) is by far the fastest growing union of construction, waste management, show service and healthcare workers throughout all of Canada. With origins dating back to 1903, LiUNA is a progressive organization whose continued success throughout the many decades can be attributed to its innovative, upwardly mobile, intelligently aggressive business philosophies. It’s a core vision that is continuously championed by its executive leadership and embraced by its 550,000 thousand workers across North America.
With its international headquarters in Washington, D.C., LiUNA is divided into nine major regions across North America. These regions are further subdivided into a total of just over 500 local unions. Joseph S. Mancinelli is International Vice President and Regional Manager for Central & Eastern Canada. As leader of such a colossal region, he is the face and the voice for about 80,000 workers.
Under the umbrella of Mancinelli’s leadership are 14 Ontario Locals, two in Quebec and five in the Atlantic provinces. LiUNA has had immense growth in virtually all nine regions and is responsible for building hospitals and medical facilities, correctional centres, office buildings, roads, bridges and so much more. If you see a construction worker at a job site, there’s a very high probability that you are looking at a LiUNA employee.
“The organization is growing by leaps and bounds right across the country,” Mancinelli tells The Canadian Business Journal during an interview from his downtown Hamilton office. “We’re doing extremely well in Alberta, which is not a surprise because of the oilsands and all of the construction going on.”
In the Pacific time zone, British Columbia is faring well, but in the central part of the country, Ontario has now at the point where it’s bursting at the seams with opportunity. In fact, the largest Local in all of North America is in the Greater Toronto Area, with about 40,000 members and there are another 8,000 members in another Local. This is a vast region that runs from Burlington in the west all the way to Cobourg in the east and up to Barrie in the north, giving the entire jurisdiction 48,000 members.
The GTA is such a powerful, vivacious economic engine; there is so much in the way of construction projects – roads, bridges, office buildings and incredible amounts of maintenance requirements. Where the amount of growth is somewhat of a pleasant surprise would have to be Newfoundland and Labrador.
“Newfoundland was always considered a have-not province, which is unfortunate” Mancinelli mentions. “But recently, because of oil, exploration, refineries and mineral exploration they have exploded. We went from having a small Local of 600 members to 3,000 members.”
Energy is also proving to be a game-changer, especially in Labrador. Newfoundland and Labrador’s energy exports include crude oil, refined petroleum products and electricity and accounts for a significant portion of the province’s annual gross domestic product.
“There is a huge energy project underway right now that is being built by a company called Astaldi,” Mancinelli says. “They got the contract under a competitive bid process and that project is $8 billion. They are building a dam way up in Labrador. We have hundreds and hundreds of members working on that one project.”
Severe winters that are known to plague the Maritimes and because of that reason the project is being completely covered over in what amounts to a dome-like scenario in order to allow work to continue between the months of December and March, including concrete pours. It costs millions to cover the work area, but it actually will save money in the long run and is viewed as wise fiscal planning.
When there was an explosion of work in Alberta, many of LiUNA’s east coast members headed west, and although it was an opportunity to make substantial money, people were leaving their families behind. Now, with so many big projects happening in the east, a lot of those individuals have been re-transplanted back into their homestead.
Evolution at LiUNA
During his 36 years with LiUNA, Mancinelli has been a direct witness to the union’s noticeable positive evolution. As previously mentioned, there are about 80,000 workers within his jurisdiction and 110,000 in all of Canada with more than half a million throughout North America.
“LiUNA is a very different union and I think that our growth and our numbers show how different we are,” he points out. “We are clearly the largest building trade union in the country.”
In 1903, the organization’s ancestors, who had the courage and intestinal fortitude to build the foundations of the union as it stands today, were predominantly immigrants from all over Europe, primarily Italy, Germany and Ireland. They came into the U.S. and Canada and were working for substandard wages, with no benefits, and in many instances under slave-like type conditions, because workers’ rights were scarce to be found more than 100 years ago.
Bear in mind there were no such things as labour laws at the turn of the 20th Century; that would have been deemed a luxury. Individuals worked for whatever and whenever their employer told them, otherwise they would risk being terminated. In many cases, people were so desperate to keep their jobs, they’d remain quiet no matter how adverse the working conditions, because there was a family at home that depended on the bread-winner putting food on the table. Suffice to say, conditions have dramatically improved since those early days, but the sacrifices made by the pioneers who paved the way to where we are today are not forgotten by the likes of Mancinelli, and he makes a point of ensuring others remember too.
“I admire the work that our predecessors did because it was under extraordinarily difficult conditions, as opposed to today where unions have a very different role to play,” Mancinelli remarks. “Clearly, there are labour laws that protect employees; there’s legislation that replaces some of the advocacy that unions had in the early years. Things have changed for the better, for non-union employees as well.”
Nowadays, in a modern civilized society where government legislation protects the basic needs of workers, a question many people debate focuses on the primary roles of unions in today’s environment.
“You will get some folks that will take an extreme position on this and say that unions are becoming extinct because of government legislation and they’re really not needed anymore, with a good standard of living here in Canada,” Mancinelli responds. “On the other hand, LiUNA is a perfect example on how important and significant it is to have a strong advocate in the workplace for a number of reasons. ”
LiUNA is a union that believes in giving back to the community and will often invest in ventures where they are working. Members feel proud when they find themselves working on a LiUNA-invested project. It helps to build upon the branding of a robust, intelligent union. Mancinelli and his team are doing their utmost to change the way some communities and members of the public view many trade unions.
“I have to admit the reputation is not good,” he candidly says. “A lot of it is politics and unions often get swept into that. LiUNA is different in that we don’t go to the left like some unions have. We’re centrists. We’ve supported Liberals and Conservatives because our members do that.”
One glaring difference between LiUNA and most other unions is that it genuinely allows individual members to make their own choices, and in particular the political parties they choose to support. It’s a unique situation not permitted in most other unions or labour associations, whether they would admit to that or not. As example, in the auto industry some years ago, CAW leader Buzz Hargrove told members straight out that they were not to vote for Mike Harris and the Progressive Conservatives, but rather had to cast their vote for the NDP. Regardless of the attempts at determining which party would form Ontario’s government, Mike Harris was elected as Ontario’s provincial premier. Trying to strong arm people is no way to garner trust, and in fact, often has a detrimental effect leading to equal if not harder push back. Mancinelli makes it clear that he and LiUNA want no part of such tactics.
“You have to look at this from a pragmatic point of view,” he offers. “Our members and their families vote, quite frankly, in the middle. They are hard working people who worry about how much money they can keep in their pocket at the end of the day. Their concerns are not much different than any other Canadian. We work with all levels of government, regardless of their political stripes.”
The rational, progressive stance taken by LiUNA is refreshing, and one that is quite rarely invoked in most other labour circles. In those other instances, the constant butting of heads with political leaders often results in a needless standstill to important lobbying efforts and serves as counterproductive in this day and age when it is imperative that governments and unions be able to work closely together for the betterment of all concerned. The goal is the same – to get the project completed safely, on time and on budget.
Health and Safety
Despite a plethora of laws and regulations, there are still numerous deaths within the construction industry every year. It is a conundrum that deeply concerns Mancinelli and his team at LiUNA and it’s abundantly clear that workers’ safety is now and always has been a top priority. They firmly believe that one life lost is too many.
“Unfortunately in 2014, we had several deaths,” he laments. “We’re talking with the government to hopefully try to strengthen those laws. Not only do we protect the interests of our members on the job site by having a health and safety representative by having our representatives go there and ensuring they are working safely but we’re also a lobbying group for the government.”
What is exceedingly frustrating for business leaders such as Mancinelli is hearing pundits who continually throw out blanket statements that unions aren’t really necessary anymore. What they fail to take into consideration is that many of those safety laws are in place today because of the ongoing advocacy efforts of unions. LiUNA is widely acknowledged as being on top of such critical matters of health and welfare for its workers, believing it is both a corporate responsibility and obligation.
“We’re the ones that are lobbying to get even non-union workers protected,” Mancinelli reveals. “That kind of advocacy needs to continue because governments in general don’t pay as close attention to these issues as they should.”
Over the past 30 years governments have made public pronouncements about not raising taxes, but in order to accomplish that feat they’ve largely scaled back on the building of much needed roads and bridges, leaving society as a whole with a huge infrastructure deficit from one end of the country to the other. As Mancinelli notes, it is mind-boggling that the largest city in Canada has only one major artery – the Gardiner Expressway – heading into and out of downtown Toronto, and it was built in 1963.
“You can’t have a metropolitan area of that magnitude with one lousy road that was built more than 50 years ago – it’s just not right,” Mancinelli says, with an air of disbelief in his voice. “Governments aren’t spending taxpayers’ money wisely as we’re seeing with infrastructure deficits and gridlock.”
LiUNA is lobbying for increased spending on infrastructure projects not only because it gives work to the membership, but because there is a genuine massive problem facing southern Ontario in particular, and it is called gridlock. Traffic congestion began affecting the quality of life for many communities years ago and it’s only getting worse with each passing day. What was once a relatively easy 10-15 minute drive, can now be 45 minutes in some jurisdictions.
“Hamilton used to be easy to get in and out of,” Mancinelli notes. “Now look at it. It’s a disaster. Traffic is almost as bad as Toronto. Truck traffic is getting outrageous.”
Noticeable inadequacies pertaining to the infrastructure situation in southern Ontario can also be pegged solidly on the failure to twin the Peace Bridge in Fort Erie that joins with Buffalo, NY. Politics – on the New York side in particular – have consistently stunted potential for that project. There have been rumours that it may be revitalized, but nothing yet has been confirmed.
“They should build another bridge and have one dedicated for trucks and one for passenger vehicles,” Mancinelli points out. “That would make life so much easier for people. We’re trying to keep on top of many issues, but it’s difficult because you’re dealing with different governments, who like to say ‘yes, we’re on top of it’ but then 10 years go by and the project still is not done.”
Training New Workers
Training, and by extension career skills development, is a vital aspect in an employee’s forward progression at LiUNA. In general, Canada is looking at an aging workforce from coast to coast. Many of those highly-skilled construction workers, with an ability to carry out a variety of different tasks, can now see retirement on the horizon.
“Many of them are the very best we have,” Mancinelli proudly states. “They’re all late 50s, early 60s and they have a number of skills. They do concrete and asphalt work; form work, carpentry, cement finishing, pipe-laying – you name it, they do it.”
Advancements in safety and productivity training within the general workforce continue to grow more robust. Productivity, which includes being on time and on budget, means having well-trained employees to carry out the tasks at hand. To obtain maximum benefit, it requires employers and unions to work closely together in order to yield the best results.
“I think that’s what makes LiUNA so different from other unions,” Mancinelli frankly states. “We do work very closely with our employers – our contractors – to ensure first of all that our members stay employed. If our companies are working, our guys are working.”
Mancinelli and LiUNA understand the economics and challenges of the industry. In 1903, it was an entirely different scenario because so many infrastructure projects still needed to be executed. Comparatively, the conditions were so bad back then that one just couldn’t think as we do nowadays. The importance of what LiUNA brings to the table cannot be overstated when discussing infrastructure development in the civil sector, which includes the likes of: roads, bridges, sewers and water mains. You have LiUNA and the operating engineers carrying out the entire herculean task of bringing a project to its successful conclusion.
“There are only two trade unions there,” Mancinelli confirms. “Within those two trades there are many skillsets. The operators do the heavy machinery; our guys will drive some of the smaller machinery like Bobcats or boom trucks. In the civil sector, everything else is us.”
Take for example a highway bridge project. On that bridge will be the operating engineers, maybe with a crane, but all the forming work is done by LiUNA carpentry members as is all the cement and asphalt work.
Recruiting Young People
Despite the undeniable fact construction and related industries are known for providing workers with excellent, high-paying jobs, there has been a dearth of young people, who in recent times have not seemed to view it as a viable career option. It’s a worrisome trend that definitely has not escaped Mancinelli’s attention.
“Construction isn’t sexy any more for young people,” he remarks. “I think the dotcom era has affected the ability of young people to choose it as a career path. Many of our contractors, especially the small to medium size, at one time were our members. They started off with a small construction company, got expertise and started their own companies and many of them are wealthy businessmen. Now everyone thinks they are going to be Bill Gates and make millions of dollars. But many find themselves working at Walmart behind a counter making minimum wage.”
In construction, many of LiUNA’s members have beautiful homes and make a great living. There’s danger involved, there’s no question about it, and that’s why proper training is every bit as important as productivity. But the greatest challenge right now is recruiting to try and encourage young people to become involved in the industry.
Mancinelli says there are two main reasons why it’s challenging to fit the recruitment needs, and he offers no apologies on being blunt regarding what they are.
“Number one is the high school system, which is not prepared or equipped to have kids get into the industry,” he asserts. “Quite frankly, I don’t think there’s a guidance counsellor in this province (Ontario) that has ever suggested it (construction) to a kid. Not all kids are going to be engineers, scientists, lawyers and accountants.”
A significant number of LiUNA members are university graduates, but Mancinelli wonders had they been given better guidance coming out of high school, perhaps they could have saved thousands of dollars on tuition if the option of getting into construction and been made higher profile earlier on. Mancinelli often hears from members who they say they genuinely enjoy their work and wish they had gone directly into the field rather than wasting three or four years on a course that never led them anywhere.
The second obstacle as Mancinelli sees it is the parents. Most will simply not admit that their child isn’t cut out to be a professional of some sort. It has nothing to do with smarts or intelligence, but rather abilities.
“Everybody has different skill levels, but parents – in general – like to think that their kids have all these other skills,” he reflects. “In the construction industry, we have a shortage of certain skills and we have full employment. That helps the economy, because all that money is circulating – they are buying homes and cars, fridges and television sets. That’s enormous economic stimulus.”
If it was not for construction, Mancinelli is uncertain as to how strong Ontario’s economy would be. The industry has been exceptionally buoyant, even during the global economic downturn that began in 2008. Despite having all their employees currently working, LiUNA still has a shortage of workers in a number of areas such as cement finishing, form setters, pipe layers. In fact, Mancinelli is certain that if there were 150 people who had experience in pipe laying, they’d be able to hire them on the spot. It’s a skill not everybody can handle. It requires knowing how to use a laser in order to make all the parts fit as designed by the engineers.
“We have a training centre for every city in Ontario so we are, from an infrastructure point of view, very well equipped to train,” he says. “We just need the young people to come in.”
In speaking about young people, Mancinelli is referring to individuals as old as their 30s who may be looking for a career change, but still have many good years of working left. Additionally, LiUNA has undertaken a very inspiring, innovative approach to the hiring process.
“We’re working with the Armed Forces and call it Helmet to Hard Hats,” Mancinelli reveals. “These guys are used to the work that we do. They are disciplined and follow orders, and that is essential in construction.”
Early results from this initiative have been extremely positive.
“We’ve got quite a few who have come in from different jurisdictions,” Mancinelli confirms. “We’ve been working with one of the retired generals who has taken a lead in the Helmets to Hard Hats.”
Contractors are also a great source for recruitment. It’s all about effective networking. Get them to the training centre and if they prove to be capable, they will be put out into the workforce.
In 1903 it was about advocacy in securing human rights. Now all these many decades later the focus is on skills, employment, lobbying, health and safety. It’s a different world. LiUNA is still protecting its workers, albeit in a much different manner.
Benefits & Pension Plan
LiUNA members are out on a daily basis come rain or shine, slugging it out in the extreme heat and frigid winters. Individuals all look forward to the day they can retire because they know they can afford to do it. Mancinelli made it clear that his organization would not rely on government pensions, because they are not the greatest. It is very difficult to survive only on a government pension with the lifestyle they’ve become accustomed to throughout much of their adult working life.
There is the full gamut of benefits on the LiUNA healthcare plan, including medical, dental and prescription medication and also chiropractic coverage. In 2008, when many pension plans around the world were being crushed by the equity markets taking a nosedive, LiUNA bounced back quicker because of their many alternative investment portfolios. In 1971, LiUNA started the Central & Eastern Canada Pension Plan.
“We have some of the very best benefits, for construction workers in particular,” Mancinelli confirms.
“Right now, that pension plan is the largest multi-employer pension plan in Canada.”
There are larger single employer plans, such as the Ontario Teachers’ Federation and OMERS, but with LiUNA and its thousands of employers that remit into it for the members, there are numerous reciprocal benefits not afforded to single employer plans, according to Mancinelli.
“First of all it’s safer,” he begins. “If an employer goes bankrupt the chances are that our members that are there will end up working for another employer and their pension continues.”
In other words, the fear of an Algoma, Air Canada or Stelco happening where the pension plans become compromised is not ever a factor with LiUNA with the multi-employer setup.
Another aspect that gives Mancinelli immense pride is the fact that multi-employer pension plans do not have any allowed reliability on the governments to bail them out. If a single employer goes insolvent and the pension plan becomes insolvent, the government has a guarantee program that provides a certain percentage.
“We’re the largest multi-employer pension plan in Canada at almost $5 billion in assets,” says Mancinelli, who also serves as Chairman of the Fund. It is currently 91% funded which is extraordinarily high and is the fifth-fastest growing pension plan in the nation. Mancinelli expects it will be 100% funded within the next several years, and there aren’t many pension plans in Canada that can say that.
As another notch in the innovation belt, LiUNA is the only pension plan in Canada that started its own Infrastructure Fund. It was about four years ago when the trustees of the pension plan decided to get this Fund going with the government building so many new hospitals, roads, highway extensions, etc., and they’re doing it through consortiums through alternative forms of financing such as P3s (public-private partnerships).
“Our guys work on these projects, so we thought we might as well invest in these projects because there is a multiple benefit,” Mancinelli says. “We’re getting a government guarantee, because they are all government projects. If the government goes bankrupt, we’ve got bigger problems, but if things are as safe with the government as we think they are – which they are – we’re going to get a return for the next 20 years that could be anywhere from 10-14%, which is exceptional. We’re patient money. We want that return over a long period of time, so it’s safe.”
The second obvious benefit is that it puts LiUNA members to work. The union’s pension plan has invested in six new hospitals in Ontario. Out of those six, the average return is about 13%.
Mancinelli’s construction team worked on all of those hospitals and while they were working they were remitting money back into the pension plan, making it a third benefit. A fourth benefit is the positive community branding that LiUNA gets in being a partner. One such example would be the new Oakville hospital, which is a LiUNA consortium investment.
“Everybody in the community knows that LiUNA is involved and we have a good reputation, because quite frankly unions don’t have a great reputation in Canada,” Mancinelli states. “They have a militant reputation. We want to change that and the way to do that is to implement some of the things that we’re doing, such as being community partners. We’re building and investing in communities.”
It’s by no means just hospitals or medical care facilities that attracts the participation of LiUNA. As example, the union has also invested in Ontario Provincial Police detachment centres and courthouses. The next step is investment into transportation infrastructure with Ontario opportunities including the extension of Highway 407 and subways in Toronto.
“Our Infrastructure Fund is reaching out to our employers and partnering with them; bidding on projects and winning them and getting a great return for our pension plan.”
LiUNA is the only known union in North America that gives scholarships to members’ children.
“I was at a function in Toronto recently where our affiliate gave a number of scholarships out to members’ kids that are in school,” Mancinelli says. “Local 193 did it, Local 506 did it not too long ago, Ottawa was also recently but I couldn’t go because I was at another function and our Hamilton Local also just gave out scholarships.”
LiUNA set up a committee, to take all politics out of the equation, whereby a group of citizens from all walks of life are asked to provide the names of the highest achievers. Eight scholarships valued at $3,000 each are presented to the kids for their outstanding achievements. About 24 years ago, Mancinelli added another aspect to the scholarship program.
“We thought it would be nice if every child got a scholarship regardless of their academic achievements,” he says.
“At that time we negotiated three cents an hour from our members to put into a scholarship fund. At that time we enrolled all six year olds and under. Right now, every single child in this jurisdiction has a scholarship program, which is very unique. No other union has done that, so we’ve been quite innovative with what we’ve done with our benefits program.”
LiUNA takes enormous pride in its humanitarian efforts and unwavering support for charities. About $3.7 to $4 million is donated on an annual basis, and that just covers Ontario. If you were to include the rest of Canada the dollar amount would be much higher. As with people in all walks of life, LiUNA workers have had family members who have been afflicted with any number of physical, psychological and emotional ailments and diseases.
“We need to ensure that communities view us as being relevant,” Mancinelli firmly says. “LiUNA has pledged $500,000 to the psychiatric ward at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton and $1 million to the Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg. People will see that what we are doing is relevant and doing what they’d be doing, even though they are not part of a trade union.”
LiUNA is a major sponsor of the United Way in many cities and at a number of hospitals as well. In fact, just recently Mancinelli had to miss attending one fundraiser because he’d already committed himself to another one that same evening.
“About $110,000 was raised for Toronto General Hospital and about $150,000 for Peel Memorial. We support a number of charitable groups year after year. The Children’s Wish Foundation is one of our favourite children’s charities. Easter Seals is another big LiUNA charitable that we give each year.”
It’s an expensive venture for LiUNA to continue giving to the extent that it does, but Mancinelli feels it builds awareness in the community and helps to raise the overall profile of the organization.
“What goes around comes around,” he says. “It really does work that way. I think that we have the respect of government not only because of the advocacy work we do for our members but for the community work as well.”