Manitoba construction stakeholders have contrasting views on new legislation introduced by the provincial government to eliminate labour restrictions on publicly funded construction projects.
The proposed Public Sector Construction Projects Act (Tendering) would prohibit public-sector entities from using unionization status as a tendering requirement and would eliminate the practice of employees paying dues to unions they are not members of.
Construction projects undertaken by the government, crown corporations, school boards and post-secondary institutions and regional health authorities would have to comply with the act, though the legislation would not affect projects currently under construction.
Manitoba Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler said in making the May 10 announcement this decision would put an end to “forced unionization” and ensure “all workers and employers in this province are treated fairly.”
Manitoba Heavy Construction Association (MHCA) president Chris Lorenc welcomed the legislation and said his organization finds the idea that one can only work on a project as part of a union “unacceptable.”
“The notion that government has a right to be prescriptive of whether or not workers are part of a bargaining unit is undemocratic. The purpose of labour legislation is to give choices,” Lorenc said.
He did stress, however, that he also approves of leaving current projects as they are if a project labour agreement (PLA) is already in place.
“We also believe in the sanctity of contracts. Retroactive legislation is never a positive,” he said.
The MHCA has been opposed to PLAs since the Red River Floodway expansion project in the late 1990s, Lorenc said. The floodway project required employees and contractors to sign a collective agreement and hire from specific unions.
This legislation does significant harm to the long-term potential of Manitoba
— Sudhir Sandhu
Manitoba Building Trades
“We made no headway with the previous administration, so we welcome this legislation from the new administration,” he said.
Merit Manitoba president Yvette Milner also voiced support for the proposed legislation.
“We applaud Mr. (Brian) Pallister’s government for doing the right thing and levelling the playing field so that the majority of the industry is not discouraged from competing for government work,” said Milner.
“Although the proposed legislation will not affect existing work, it is a good step in the right direction for the future. Opening up the playing field increases competition, potentially reduces project costs and benefits the whole industry.”
Not all Manitoba construction stakeholders support the legislation, however.
Manitoba Building Trades CEO Sudhir Sandhu said the proposed new rules manufacture a problem that isn’t there in the first place.
“There’s no legislation that requires PLAs. It’s a regressive action by the provincial government,” Sandhu said. “It’s an ideologically driven decision.”
Sandhu also pointed to publicly funded schools and unions as the two largest sources of trades training, and said the new PLA legislation will disincentivize labour to continue with training
“The burden will fall on public funding, and from there to taxpayers,” Sandhu said. “This legislation does significant harm to the long-term potential of Manitoba and to the vibrancy of the construction industry.”
Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA) vice-president of public affairs Darrel Reid said his organization is “delighted” with the legislation.
“The PCA have been advocates for open tendering and that all qualified companies and workers should have access to public works projects. Premier Pallister promised this and delivered, and it’s a good deal for taxpayers,” Reid said.
He noted while Manitoba has changed its policy, the Government of British Columbia may be headed in the opposite direction as B.C. Premier John Horgan recently voiced his support of PLAs for government projects.
“While the Government of Manitoba learned an expensive lesson, the Government of British Columbia looks to be repeating that lesson,” Reid said.