July 4, 2022

WHEN LAIRD CRONK WAS a young man, he wanted to buy a house. Soon after he earned his trade ticket, he walked into a bank in Nanaimo’s Northbrook Mall and applied for mortgage pre-approval. The bank employee asked what he did for a living. Cronk replied he was a brand-new journeyperson. He was asked to provide a T4 and proof of union membership. The bank deemed Cronk a “good risk” because he had his ticket and was in the union; they approved him for a sizeable mortgage then and there.

“That changed my life,” said Cronk. “I could buy a house for me and my family. The union made the bank respect me; they made sure I had a decent standard of living. I never looked back.”

Cronk is a Red Seal electrician and has been a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 230 (IBEW Local 230) for over three decades. He is the two-time elected president of the BC Federation of Labour (BCFED) and has been an advocate for workers’ rights throughout his career.

While Cronk has been aware of the many advantages unions provide construction workers since he was a child–his father was a member of Local 230 and the business manager of IBEW Local 258–non-unionized workers are also starting to take note due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As most of the working world went into lockdown, grocery store employees, retail workers, and those in supply chain sectors were deemed essential workers and kept on-the-job. Many worked for minimum wage without extended healthcare benefits for themselves or their families, and without collective agreements mandating fair distribution of work and pay.

“COVID has sharpened the focus on the workers who have been working through it of what’s important. Health and safety are paramount. We’ve seen the damage from this horrible disease,” said Cronk. “Employees are asking, do I really want to be in this industry? Am I being valued by my employer? Some are choosing to leave for a different occupation, while others are choosing to try and make their occupation the best it can be. And that’s where a unified voice will make change. The pandemic has built an appreciation for unions.”

According to Statistics Canada, union density rose 0.09 per cent in 2020 compared to 2019, peaking when pandemic related job losses were at their highest. Unionized construction workers rose three per cent from January 2020 to Dec. 31, 2021. A Starbucks in Victoria became the first unionized Starbucks in Canada in August 2020. The Lynn Valley Care home in North Vancouver voted to unionize in July 2020. The home was the site of the first COVID-19 death in the country. The pandemic has played out in different ways for different groups. While supply chain workers such as truckers were
working more hours than ever, many building projects halted and construction workers went onto unemployment lists. According to Cronk, Locals such as IBEW Local 230 provided hour bank health and welfare funds, which continued to cover construction workers and their families for extended medical and dental work while they were off work. While this level of insurance coverage isn’t economical for a single company or an individual, unions can collectively negotiate for the best benefits plans, fair pay, and even pension plans because of their large membership. Cronk points out that this negotiating power makes unionized employees attractive for employers.

The advantages of unionized construction work even extend to members struggling with mental health issues and/or addiction; they can access help through the Construction Industry Rehabilitation Plan (CIRP). Unions also provide worksite advocates and pension plans. Members can access support for their children, their spouses, and for themselves throughout their career and into retirement.

“When I was young, I didn’t appreciate pensions as much because I was living in the day, but as I get older, I appreciate it more,” said Cronk. “It sounds dramatic to say, but unions support you from the cradle to the grave.”

by Tatiana Tomljanovic