Retrofitting an outdated perception

Building Council

It was 1992, the recession was tightening its relentless grip, work for the building trades in the private sector was at a standstill, and John Cartwright, fresh into the job as head of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Toronto and central Ontario, knew he had to find an alternative.

He found it. Now, five years later, he embraces it not as an alternative but as a central theme. « I think it’s vital for this council to be an advocate of sustainability,«  he says. « That’s the best way to deal with where the jobs are going to come from in the future, and what kind of place we are going to bring our kids up in.

« It’s part of my personal definition of what the union movement should be all about.’’

Forty-three years old and wiry, with eyes that hook into yours and won’t let go, he faced widespread aversion to environmentalists within the council membership. « One of the weaknesses in the thinking around environmental concerns is that workers get ignored,’’ he says.

« There’s a whole section of the environmental movement, particularly around resource issues, that doesn’t see that jobs and environmental protection can be compatible issues. A lot of our members associated the environmental movement with environmental assessments and long delays in getting projects under way. So they saw it as a problem.’’

As the council’s new head, Cartwright took advantage of a program, initiated by the government of David Peterson in the late eighties, called TARP (Technology Adjustment Research Program). It provided about $70,000 a year to the council for research. He immediately redirected the research into « green’’ issues — first into retrofitting buildings, next into improving air quality, and then into skills training.

« Then we focused our 1995 annual conference on jobs and the environment. . .  and that broke down a whole lot of walls and barriers within the membership.’’

Hell, says Cartwright, just for starters, « All the built environment has to be redone.’’ And since retrofitting is generally a financially smart move — the savings in energy costs to a building owner can usually pay for a retrofit in a few short years — there can be work for his members long into the foreseeable future.

But in many cases it means that workers need to upgrade their skills. For instance, they need new expertise in electronics to deal with heating and lighting control systems in buildings that generate their own electricity, either through photovoltaics or on-site generators. They need to be familiar with the latest technologies that deal with air leakage and insulation values in the skins of buildings. And they need to know the reasoning that supports the use of non-toxic paints, glues, and other materials.

So the council is helping to coordinate retraining with individual unions such as the Plumbers and Steamfitters, the Sheet Metal Workers, the Electrical Workers, the Carpenters, the Operating Engineers, the Refrigeration Workers, the Boilermakers, and so on.

Not only does the retraining help workers on the job, he says, « When they become supervisors they’ll carry these values around when they’re purchasing.’’

Unfortunately, Ontario’s Conservative Government cancelled TARP at the beginning of its mandate. And  although that slowed Cartwright down, it hasn’t stopped him. The council has affiliated with the Canadian Energy Efficiency Alliance in an effort to continue its research initiatives.

Meanwhile, at the regional planning level, Cartwright is trying to build an on-going alliance with transit workers, through through an organization called Job Start Coalition, to expand Metro’s subway system. « We’ve taken the position that it’s better (environmentally) to build more subways than to construct more big roadways.’’

In addition, he’s put out feelers among some developers about setting up a sustainable development group to address such issues as increasing housing density both to curb urban sprawl and to support transit expansion.

In short, what he has been demonstrating is that once you start looking through the lens of sustainability at what you do, there’s no end to the opportunities that arise.

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