Five Good Ideas ®

Five Good Ideas for building community-labour relations

Published on 25/11/2021

Local communities want the workforce building public infrastructure to reflect the demographics of their neighbourhoods and for the accrued economic benefits to be shared more equitably. Construction unions also recognize community benefits as an opportunity to increase diversity and inclusion in their workforce. If the goals and values are shared, how can the promise of community benefits be fulfilled?

In this Five Good Ideas session, Rosemarie Powell, Executive Director of the Toronto Community Benefits Network (TCBN), shares the lessons she has learned as the leader of a community-labour coalition charged with implementing community benefits agreements. She has worked on some of the city’s largest public infrastructure projects, including the Eglinton Crosstown LRT, Finch West LRT, Casino Woodbine, and the West Park Healthcare Centre.

Rosemarie tells the story of how TCBN created a foundation for success by building an allied coalition. She takes us through their journey of building trust, revealing some of the systems and processes they used to hold each side accountable while recognizing and celebrating progress along the way.

Five Good Ideas

  1. Co-create the foundation for success
  2. Cultivate a coalition of champions and allies
  3. Build and preserve trust while working through challenges
  4. Maintain a clear definition of success and verify outcomes
  5. Recognize and celebrate milestones and progress



Presentation transcript

Note: The transcript has been edited for clarity.


Thank you, Maytree, for this wonderful opportunity to share my experience over the past 5 years working with labour to advance the community benefits movement. Maytree is an early champion for community benefits, with several of their staff participating in the early foundation of the TCBN.

Over the past decades, the City of Toronto has witnessed an extraordinary amount of capital reinvestment that has led to residential neighbourhood transformation and gentrification of many downtown and inner suburban communities. Billions of dollars are being spent by all levels of government on building infrastructure, and investment in infrastructure is a key economic driver as we seek to recover from Covid-19. Meanwhile, inequality has risen, housing has become unaffordable for many families, living costs like childcare have increased while community and green spaces have diminished. Recent data has shown how increasing income inequality in the city has resulted in increased spatial and income polarization of the visible minority and White populations in the City of Toronto.

Incorporated in 2014, the Toronto Community Benefits Network is the only non-profit organization in the City of Toronto with a mandate to negotiate Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs) for major public infrastructure and urban development projects, and to track, monitor and support their implementation. Community Benefits in Toronto builds on a well-established history of similar initiatives that have taken place in other locations in Canada and beyond, including over 300 Impact Benefits Agreements (IBAs) that have been privately negotiated between Indigenous communities and developers stemming from the Government of Canada’s duty to consult, and where appropriate, accommodate Indigenous groups when it considers conduct that might adversely impact potential or established Aboriginal or treaty rights.

From the exploitation of its land to the exploitation of its people through slavery since the foundation of this nation, the history of the labour movement in Canada and North America needs to be analyzed within the context of systemic and anti-Black racism. This became evident to the public in 2020 when nooses were found on several unionized construction sites, putting Black people on notice that they are not welcome on the job site and that their safety is in question. Given their long history of struggle for fair wages, workers rights and dignity, unions have a social and moral responsibility to stand with the community to demand better inclusion of Black, Indigenous and Peoples of Colour in the workforce that builds public infrastructure.

This session will focus on good practices and lessons learned as our community-labour coalition rolled up our sleeves to implement the community benefits agreements we negotiated into several major public infrastructure projects including the Eglinton Crosstown LRT, Finch West LRT, Casino Woodbine and the West Park Healthcare Centre.

Good idea #1: Co-create the foundation for success

Building on close to a decade of community benefits organizing in local neighbourhoods, a steering committee composed of community and labour activists formed the TCBN. To establish itself as a legal entity with standing to sign community benefits agreements, the group organized through the fall of 2012, launched the organization in January 2013, developed its Foundation Document, then incorporated as a non profit organization on March 17, 2014. I joined TCBN in 2016 and my first tasks were to finalize the negotiations for the Community Benefits Framework with Metrolinx for the Eglinton Crosstown LRT and to embark on a strategic planning process, where we consulted with over 100 people from a cross-section of stakeholders to determine the path forward over the next five years.

With leadership from the Toronto and York Region Labour Council and affiliated community-labour groups such as the Labour Community Services, Labour Education Centre, the Good Jobs for All Coalition as well as construction unions on our Board of Directors like the Carpenters Union Local 27, IBEW Local 353, LiUNA 506 and 183, Insulators Local 95, Sheet Metal Workers Local 30 and just recently, the United Association Local 46, in just seven years, the TCBN has built a community benefits movement with over 120 member organizations and groups, 10 thousand supporters and implemented workforce development initiatives that have supported over 1,000 candidates.

Good idea #2: Cultivate a coalition of champions and allies

More than anything, I have appreciated the allyship of our brothers and sisters in the labour movement. At their core, labour unions are organized by workers to fight for employee rights and protections. Structurally, labor unions operate like a democracy, they have local chapters, each of which obtains a charter from the national-level organization, and they are organized within specific industries. There are different approaches to engage with labour. They are our teachers, our nurses, our police officers, our firefighters, our first responders, our sisters, our brothers and our parents. We interact with them in our daily lives, and they are deeply entrenched in our communities.

One of our biggest champions in the labour movement was John Cartwright who became TCBN’s first Labour Co-Chair. He is the former President of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council which represents over 200,000 union members. As the Labour Council President, John worked with affiliated unions to craft an aggressive equity agenda for Toronto’s labour movement and under his leadership, the Council had the most diverse leadership of any central labour body in the country. This is the kind of principled approach he brought to the TCBN.

To intentionally build and cultivate strong and sustained relationships with our labour allies at all stages and levels within our organization, TCBN has established a number of initiatives. Two programs stand out as good practices in working with unions: Secondment and Mentorship.

Secondment: TCBN have utilized secondments as a means to deepen our understanding and expand our relationships within the unionized construction sector. To date, we have entered into such agreements with IBEW Local 353, UA Local 46, Labour Education Centre, the Afro Canadian Contractors Association. A secondment is a temporary move of an employee from one of our partnering agencies and unions to work with the TCBN to take on a special project. The employee maintains his/her position in the home organization and is paid by the home organization to do the work of the TCBN. Depending on the agreement and funding, TCBN or the partner organization will cover the salary. Secondments are great for career development to gain breadth of knowledge and experience, as well as to help strengthen the capacity in the host organization. Secondments allows us to build trusting relationships with our members and partners as well as to develop competencies within our staff and those of our member agencies.

Mentoring: TCBN created the NexGen Builders Mentoring program in view of addressing the need for welcome, inclusion and retention in the union and on the job site. The program initially started as a means to support Black youth who experience an especially tough time navigating the construction apprenticeship pathway due to lack of personal networks, power imbalance on the jobs site and other issues related to systemic racism. The program assists those youth who are ready to pursue a career in the construction industry to obtain strategic guidance from peer mentors and mentors from our partnering unions. It offers mentees the practical advice, moral support and guidance of an experienced construction apprentice, journeyperson or professional as they navigate the challenges of the apprenticeship system or the construction industry in general and a workplace culture that is not always welcoming. The program offers a structured training program for both mentees and mentors prior to them being matched. To date over 300 Mentees who participated in NexGen Builders and who were placed on TCBN’s Ready to Hire list were sponsored by our union and employer partners.

Good idea #3: Build and preserve trust while working through challenges

While community benefits requirements in government policy have signaled that targeted hiring of equity seeking groups must occur on major infrastructure projects they procure, a reliable pathway for these candidates must be created to integrate within the complex environment of the unionized Construction industry in Ontario, and in GTA. Further complicating the environment, unions are not included in Community Benefits Agreements although they have a major role in who gets hired and who becomes a registered apprentice.

The most recent Auditor General’s Report that focussed on improving the apprenticeship system made recommendations that would tweak problematic components of the existing systems, but never touched on how well the systems of major stakeholders worked together: Contractors, sub-contractors, unions, and construction pre-apprenticeship providers. The TCBN in collaboration with our community, labour and industry partners are working hand in hand to address some of these concerns. Together we are stronger, and collaboration is key instead of working in silos. Unfortunately, in a funding environment with scarce resources, it can cause friction between organizations doing similar work. It is important to respect the different roles we each play and identify how we assist each other.

The Eglinton Crosstown LRT, the first large scale project to have a formal CBA Program, is a good example of how community, labour and industry collaborate well together to achieve common goals. As of March 31st, 2021, CTS has achieved 424 Community Benefits Placements, including 202 Apprentices and Journey Persons, and 222 in professional, administrative, and technical positions, and just over $800,000 in social procurement. These achievements were made possible in large part because some unions, in collaboration with their employers, took steps to adjust their traditional recruitment, hiring and procurement practices to incorporate more inclusive approaches to attract, employ and retain individuals hired through community benefits.

Good idea #4: Maintain a clear definition of success and verify outcomes

Findings from the TCBN Career Track in Construction Research and Pilots suggest that there is opportunity in Ontario for CBAs to achieve their social goals of job creation for diverse and/or under-represented groups while supporting the Construction sector in addressing labour supply challenges.

Construction unions with a focus on equity and diversity in the trades have mainly focused their efforts on increasing the participation of women and Indigenous workers. While these efforts are starting to show success, they recognize the need to further expand their efforts to include more Black and racialized communities, with a focus on women, youth and newcomers residing in historically disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

Coupled with this commitment, it is essential that a robust tracking, monitoring and evaluation system and process be put in place. Unfortunately, we have experienced significant reluctance from the industry, including our union allies, in wanting to do so.

There are employers who have always resisted compliance measures – going back since the first building codes were adopted, the first Fair Wage policies, the first safety laws, and standards for trades qualifications. It is because of this reality that enforcement measures are necessary. The gradual implementation of the internal responsibility system for construction health and safety was achieved over many years with a culture shift that drew from the best practices, combined with penalties applied to those who were slow or resistant to embracing this vital shared responsibility.

Good idea #5: Recognize and celebrate milestones and progress

The passing of the provincial Infrastructure for Jobs and Prosperity Act and Metrolinx signing of the Framework was celebrated as an early win for TCBN, however, we recognize that the deep systems work we are undertaking will mean a long battle ahead. This work takes continued resident engagement, community benefits campaigns, outreach and recruitment for the jobs and opportunities, etc. To celebrate the tireless volunteers from our membership who are leading the work in their local communities, we created the annual Change Makers Awards, which is presented to the individual or group that were catalysts in achieving the victories for the community during the previous fiscal year. In 2018, we recognized the first cohort of mentors who helped to launch the NexGen Builders Mentoring Program. In 2019, we recognized and celebrated the group who mounted a grassroots campaign and who deputed at City Hall to pass the City’s Community Benefits Framework. In 2020, we recognized and celebrated the social enterprises who helped to promote the Inclusive Recovery Campaign nationally.

Our most significant recognition program yet is the Building Diversity Awards (BDA) and Recognition Program that TCBN implemented in 2020 to recognize exemplary contractors, unions and client/owners as well as industry champions who are leading in diversity, equity and inclusion. Award recipients are recognized for one or more steps they are taking that correspond to the Global Diversity and Inclusion Benchmarks (standards for organizations around the world), as adapted by BuildForce Canada for the Construction Industry. The Awards received the support of the Ontario General Contractors Association, along with construction industry leaders such as EllisDon, AECON and Tridel and many other industry leaders.


More and more, the community demands that the workforce building public infrastructure better reflect the demographics of the local community and that the benefits of economic development be shared more equitably. Construction unions recognize community benefits as an opportunity to build on their efforts for increased diversity and inclusion in their workforce. There is an alignment of values and goals. Developing strong collaboration between community and labour will help to ensure the promise of community benefits is fulfilled.

Rosemarie Powell

Executive Director, Toronto Community Benefits Network (TCBN)

Rosemarie Powell is a passionate advocate for social, economic, and environmental justice. She has led for over 20 years from the grassroots up, managing and developing several innovative and impactful community programs and services to support historically disadvantaged communities and equity seeking groups’ access to the labour market and the economy. Her community engagement work in Jane and Finch earned several awards for leadership and imagination. Currently, Rosemarie is the Executive Director of the Toronto Community Benefits Network (TCBN).

TCBN is a community/labour coalition of 120 member organizations and groups which successfully initiated Community Benefits Agreements for the Eglinton Crosstown and Finch West LRT transit projects, West Park Healthcare Centre, and Rexdale Casino Woodbine.