IBEW Local 303 is 106 years old as of July 26. Since its founding in 1912, it has had to endure an ongoing series of economic storms. But thanks to more strategic planning, today the local is doing better than ever.
The Niagara region is boxed in geographically, with Lake Ontario on the North, Lake Erie to the south, the Niagara River and US border on the east, and the Welland River to the west. It has a total population of less than half a million people.
While tourism has always been an important part of Niagara, it was also once a major manufacturing and industrial centre in Ontario. Unfortunately, however, these sectors have been eroded over time, following the general trend in North America as a whole since the 1970s. As a result, many industries have left the region and Local 303 has had to do a lot to diversify.
“If there’s one thing our local does exceptionally well, it’s weather the storm,” says Local 303 Business Manager Mark Cherney. “We’ve withstood a lot of economic challenges and a lot of changes in government. But I’m proud to say that after over a hundred years, we’re still an important part of the Niagara community.”
This is an even bigger achievement, considering that Local 303 is one of Ontario’s smaller locals, with about 300 active members and a hundred retirees.
Building a New Prosperity
The good news is that in recent years, Local 303 has been much busier than they have been for decades. This new prosperity took a lot of work to bring about.
“When I first got elected, I sat down with our President and Membership Development Coordinator, Rob Wall, to do an assessment,” says Cherney. “We looked at the challenges and did some brainstorming. What we came up with was a kind of travelling road show,” he says.
Cherney credits several other locals in southern Ontario with providing tips on electrical contractors who might be willing to expand into the Niagara region. “We visited a lot of those contractors, explained about the new training centre and the other things we had to offer, and asked them to be a part of it.”
The drive succeeded, resulting in increased work in institutional, commercial, and even residential sectors.
A Part of Niagara’s Newer, Better Infrastructure
“Right now we have about a half dozen large projects keeping our members working,” says Cherney. “This is fantastic for our area, which is very tourism-driven and doesn’t see the ongoing construction that other areas enjoy.”
The new projects include a massive Niagara Falls hydroelectric upgrade project at the Sir Adam Beck Generating Stations with contractors State Group.
“It’s always neat to speak with apprentices when they go to work at that site. I explain to them they’re starting right at the source of our community’s power,” says Cherney.
Local 303 members are also wiring General Electric’s new Brilliant Manufacturing Centre (now owned by Advent Industries) and the Niagara Falls Entertainment Centre. This massive complex will have a 5,000 seat venue for concerts and entertainment tied to the Fallsview Casino.
Another exciting project is a MURS (multi use recreational site) in Smithville called the West Lincoln Arena and Community Centre. When completed, it will have an NHL-size hockey arena, a library, a gym, walking tracks, and a skateboard park.
Additional infrastructure electrical work for the local includes renovations at the Haldimand War Memorial Hospital in Dunnville, building the new Dunnville-Fairview Public School as well as green energy electrical upgrades for Brock University and General Motors of Canada. In recent years Local 303 has completed work on the Meridian Centre in St. Catharines, the St. Catharines Hospital, the Niagara Outlet Collection and expansion for Cytec’s Niagara Falls processing facility.
An interesting change for the area is more multi-unit residential buildings, like the new 10-story condo the local is wiring. “It’s exciting to see the residential boom moving this way,” says Cherney.
But in spite of recent better times, Cherney is bracing for additional change. “We’re waiting to see what kind of support our new provincial government provides for infrastructure construction,” says Cherney, referencing the current plans for a new hospital in the area, as well as a Go Train connection from Toronto to Niagara.
In spite of having a smaller membership than most locals, Local 303 has been showing that teamwork can make a difference. “We’ve been very fortunate in recent years with our elected Executive Board,” says Cherney. “Definitely everyone’s been pulling in the same direction and I’m hoping to keep that continuity going.”
Cherney also emphasizes that the local’s job site stewards have been instrumental to the success of the group. “Those guys are going above and beyond all across the Niagara region.”
The new dedicated training facility, which opened in 2013, helps ensure that Local 303 delivers the exceptional level of training that the IBEW is famous for. In the past few years they have also hired a full time training director, Dave Charron.
“We’re getting some great comments from contractors,” says Cherney. “They’re very pleased with the quality of workers we’re sending to their job sites.”
Cherney notes that all apprentices start with mandatory health and safety training. “That way, even if they don’t work out, we’ve given them this very important knowledge.”
Like most IBEW locals, 303 has always made a consistent effort to give back to the community.
On Friday August 17th, they’ll be hosting their 8th Annual Charity Golf Tournament. (You can contact Local 303 if you’re interested in playing or sponsoring – the tournament is open to everyone.)
The tournament usually raises $5,000 to $10,000, and proceeds go to support different local charities, with this year’s beneficiary being the Niagara Health Foundation. Last year, the tournament was held in support of Pathstone Mental Health, and Local 303 were proud to wire their new facility.
Local 303 has supported a number of other charities over the years, including the YWCA’s No Fixed Address awareness raising event for homelessness, and Habitat for Humanity.
Right now Cherney’s team remains focused on capturing as much work as possible. “We’re in a good spot now and I really want to keep going in this positive direction. Certainly being boxed in geographically creates some challenges work-wise, but we’re busy these days.”
Cherney has been putting a lot of effort into making sure the success continues. He’s involved with the Niagara Workforce Planning Board, the Niagara Falls Chamber of Commerce, and the Region of Niagara Economic Development Working Group. He also led the effort to establish the PPLP (Public Procurement for Local Prosperity) – a group that brings together procurement officials, general contractors, and subcontractors to standardize processes.
“I’m also working with our National Political Director Matt Wayland on a program to support IBEW workers on the US side of the border in cities like Buffalo. It often seems that either they’re busy, or we’re busy. Someday, we may be able to help them out when they’re busy, and have their members support us when we need more workers. It would go a long way to ensure stable employment on both sides.”
Other goals include developing a NextGen committee so that younger members can encourage each other and to take a more active role in their local.
You can bet that no matter what challenges the future holds, the core team members of Local 303 will be working hard to ensure success for their members.