After pressure from B.C. Premier Christy Clark and a lawsuit filed by the B.C. Building Trades, BC Hydro has agreed to cut controversial provisions from its labour model for the Site C dam project.
The provisions would have prevented workers from organizing, picketing or getting recruited by unions.
"I think BC Hydro took this a step too far," Clark said to reporters at the legislature after hearing of the lawsuit.
"In the last 24 hours I’ve spoken to ministers, and I’ve spoken to the CEO of Hydro, they agree with me on that. They are going to rework the proposal to withdraw that part of it because I believe (unions) should have the right to organize. They do have the right to organize and BC Hydro can’t take that away."
Tom Sigurdson, executive director of BC Building Trades, confirmed that BC Hydro was making the changes but is still awaiting the response to the lawsuit. He said he hadn’t been in contact with the premier’s office and was surprised to hear she had weighed in.
"I guess the premier saw the validity of our claim and we are grateful for her intervention," Sigurdson said.
The B.C. and Yukon Territory Building and Construction Trades Council filed the civil lawsuit against B.C. Hydro March 2 in B.C. Supreme Court, claiming parts of its labour model for the Site C dam project would unconstitutionally hurt union organization.
"We believe it is a violation of the (Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms) because workers are allowed to join unions when they want to join and unions are allowed to organize non-union workers into their membership," said Tom Sigurdson, executive director of BC Building Trades.
Sigurdson said that under the proposed model, BC Hydro wanted non-union contractors, who bid work to come on site, do their work without accessing union members and when they’ve finished, exit the site with non-union status.
This is a major departure from other dam projects in the province, he explained. Since 1963, all major dams have been built under a project labour agreement. All contractors can bid the work, and a successful non-union contractor is able to access skilled labour from union members, and then when they’ve finished their component of work they leave with the same non-union status.
Court documents show the model proposed provisions preventing picketing or poaching workers. BC Hydro has argued that the purpose of the open shop approach is to try and access as much of the labour pool as possible for the nine-year, $8.8 billion project.
It is the most expensive infrastructure project ever for the province.
It is estimated the dam would generate enough power for about 450,000 homes a year – roughly eight per cent of the province’s energy needs.
The B.C. Building Trades was in discussions with BC Hydro and the government since last April. They advised BC Hydro that the open shop model was not a good way to go.
"There is huge economic risk for the B.C. ratepayer and taxpayer because trying to access the appropriate skilled trades at the time when they are required is going to be greatly diminished," Sigurdson said.
However, not everyone agrees. Independent Contractors and Businesses Association (ICBA) president Philip Hochstein called the lawsuit a selfish red herring that puts a crucial provincial project at risk.
He said the change BC Hydro agreed to make was to a provision that was most likely unconstitutional to begin with and it doesn’t alter the core of the open shop approach.
"The Building Trades are just using these issues to try and put in place a discredited labour approach," he said, noting that the open shop model has been used successfully in the province on major projects like the Port Mann Bridge, Sea to Sky Highway and the Canada Line.
Hochstein said Rio Tinto Alcan’s multibillion-dollar modernization of its aluminum smelter in Kitimat, B.C is an example of how the 60-year-old closed shop model can go wrong leading to billions in cost overruns.
"They put the project at risk and this is a province-building project. Not only will it create construction jobs, but the fact that we will have clean reliable inexpensive energy will allow other projects to come online to create other construction work," Hochstein said.
"It just shows how selfish the Building Trades are."
He added that the premier weighing in makes sense as the government is the ultimate shareholder of BC Hydro.
Sigurdson said that while he is happy the most "offensive" sections of the proposal will be removed, he plans to seek further changes.
In the area of procurement, Sigurdson said he is concerned about ensuring labour conditions, acceptable ratios and quotas for apprenticeships, hiring of local and First Nations workers, workplace equity, common safety and harassment conditions, and standardized compensation rates across the site.
BC Hydro has not yet returned calls for comment
The Site C project is scheduled to get underway this summer.