The largest construction workers’ local union in North America is putting up a new headquarters just outside Toronto that will be a far cry from the gritty old-time union halls of the past.
The new LiUNA Local 183 headquarters will replace the building that the union has outgrown as the Greater Toronto Area has prospered. LiUNA stands for Labourers’ International Union of North America and the local is the biggest construction union local on this continent.
Membership has been fuelled by the GTA’s construction boom, which is expected to weather the economic shrinkage caused by COVID-19. (The Building Industry and Land Development Association reports delays to many projects because of the pandemic.) Local 183 represents workers in every area of building and infrastructure construction and has grown from 28,000 members in 2011 to nearly 59,000 members now.
The new headquarters, in Vaughan, Ont., will be as flashy as the current one is, well, boring.
Fittingly, perhaps, the renderings show a postmodern sign near the top of the building identifying it as Liuna! – complete with exclamation mark.
The expansive new digs appear to be necessary, too. Right now, the union is headquartered in a nondescript building near Highway 401. Jason Ottey, Local 183′s director of government relations and communications, says it needs something bigger and better to serve the growing membership.
“We built the current building in 1991, when the membership was around 15,000 people. It’s one of our priorities now to build for future growth. We don’t want to be looking for another building in four or five years,” Mr. Ottey says.
Designed by David Dow, a principal at Toronto-based architectural firm Diamond Schmitt, the new headquarters will be more than 290,000 square feet (nearly 27,000 square metres) – almost three times the area of an average Walmart.
The local decided to move north of the 416 area code because more and more of its members live in the GTA’s outer reaches, Mr. Dow says.
“I think they also recognize that their members and the support staff who work for the local are looking for more comprehensive and up-to-date facilities than in the past,” he says.
Unions are typically housed in modest-looking offices, as if designed to demonstrate that the leadership is being prudent with members’ dues and not spending money on lavish buildings.
“Building design can send a signal about the values of the membership,” says Chris Bell, associate professor of organization studies at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto. “In this case, it looks like they’re signalling both service to their members and the values of good workmanship.”
In addition to offices and meeting rooms, the new LiUNA building will also be a gathering place and a central location for services used by members, Mr. Dow says. A six-storey tower connected to a three-storey wing will sit atop a 3,000-seat assembly hall nestled in the ground on the site, which was previously agricultural but is now part of an ambitious new urban master plan.
The tower and wing will be connected and encased in highly transparent glass, with access to parts of the rooftops for visitors to gather and socialize.
“It’s not just an office building. It’s a catalyst for a whole neighbourhood that’s going to develop at the west end of Vaughan, where it borders with Brampton,” Mr. Dow says.
The headquarters will also serve members with a medical clinic, credit union, pharmacy, training classrooms, recreational facilities and a dental clinic. Mr. Ottey says the dental clinic will be one of the largest in Canada.
Achieving the right look for this institutional building is important for the union local, its members and for the building’s future as an anchor site in an area that will see more development as neighbouring commercial buildings are constructed according to the master plan, Mr. Dow says.
“For one thing, the assembly hall will be a facility that can be rented for other events, so the building has to look attractive,” Mr. Dow says. The project will also meet LEED Silver sustainability goals for storm water retention and heat island reduction.
While this project was conceived before the COVID-19 pandemic, the development of a distinctive headquarters for a major union is nevertheless a sign of evolving labour relations, says Prof. Bell.
“A building of this size and quality sends a message about the quality of craftsmanship of the union’s members and it’s also a community centre. It says something about the pride and values that the union members have as a community,” he says.
In general, labour relations have been changing with the arrival of COVID-19, as front-line workers seek clearer guidelines and more compensation for working in possibly more dangerous conditions and those in fields such as construction have to factor physical distancing and personal protective equipment into their jobs.
“Unions are looking for new ways to demonstrate their value,” Prof. Bell says, adding that providing a functional, attractive headquarters with meeting places and medical and other services is one way of doing this.