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Merit Contractors Association president announces retirement

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by Richard Gilbert

The president of the local open-shop contractors association in Alberta is retiring after 28 years, which marks the start of the process to find his successor.

Stephen Kushner to retire from post after 28 years of leadership

The president of the local open-shop contractors association in Alberta is retiring after 28 years, which marks the start of the process to find his successor.

“The time frame for finding my replacement is set up to ensure there is a credible search and transition to make sure the new person is comfortable,” said Stephen Kushner, president of Merit Contractors Association in Alberta.

“For me, this is like managing a small business. We started out with a few companies and grew into a very large association. We want to ensure the association has continued success.”

Merit Alberta announced on April 23 that Kushner is planning to retire in early 2015.

He has worked for the association since its inception in 1986 and has helped build the organization from its 15 founding members to its current 1,300 members.

Merit has developed into a vocal opponent to trade unions and has a membership which includes some of Alberta’s largest general and trade contractors.

“We are very focused on helping our member companies with their benefit plans, as well as skills, supervisory and management training,” said Kushner.

He added that one of the key factors in Merit’s success is that they provide a cost effective vehicle for employers to provide programs, such as health benefit and retirement plans (for their employees).

For example, Merit Alberta developed the hour bank benefit plan, which has subsequently rolled out across Canada.

This health plan is priced by the hour, allowing a contractor to predict what the cost of giving employees benefits will be for each job.

The hour bank benefit plan was developed to accommodate the transient nature of construction employees between companies and regions of the country.

The initiative recognizes that health benefits are one of the most important factors in attracting and retaining skilled employees.

“Merit College of Construction has been an important area for us and also has the most potential for expansion,” said Kushner.

“On the training side, we have had a lot of success, but we have only scratched the surface. I see skills development as the area with the largest potential for the future, and the next person will be taking that over.”

Merit Alberta has also developed managerial and supervisor training programs that are being delivered by sister associations in other provinces.

The supervisory training program gives construction field supervisors or foremen an overview of general supervisory principles and teaches the skills needed to effectively manage and direct workers.

Under Kushner’s leadership, Merit Alberta helped develop open shop organizations throughout Canada including a national office in Ottawa.

“The world looks very different from when I started back in 1986,” he said.

“I expect the next 28 years to be just as tumultuous in terms of the changing construction landscape. The open shop construction sector has a huge role to play and is the dominant sector in the construction market place.”

Kushner admits this was largely due to economic factors, but Merit has also had a role in this change.

For example, Merit is a strong advocate of the federal temporary worker program, which it argues is an important recruitment tool of last resort for employers that are unable to find workers in Alberta and Canada.

For this reason, Merit has advocated for reforms to make the TFW program more responsive to skilled labour shortages.

In addition, the association has pushed the Alberta government to pass changes to the province’s labour laws.

Bill 26, which passed in June 2008, requires employees in the construction sector to have worked for an employer for 30 days before participating in a union certification vote.

Even when a union earns the right to certify, employees will have 90 days to reconsider their decision to join a union.

The government designed the provisions to prevent “salting”, which is the planting of unionized workers on a construction site before a certification vote — as a union organizing tactic in the construction sector.

Merit has also supported legislation to restrict the use of Market Enhancement Recovery Funds, which they consider to be a form of unfair bidding.

Some unions use funds raised from their membership to subsidize commercial bids of their signatory construction companies.

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