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Industry Voices Op-Ed: Building Trades shares ‘truth’ on Community Benefits Agreements

Tom Sigurdson
Industry Voices Op-Ed: Building Trades shares ‘truth’ on Community Benefits Agreements

I’m not sure what headline the Journal of Commerce editors will put on this column, but I’m going to suggest “For the record” or, “Just the facts, please.”

Or if those are too short, “The truth about Community Benefits Agreements” (CBAs) works well too.

Chances are, if you live in B.C., you’ve been hearing a lot about CBAs lately. Every major media outlet and most industry publications have been filled with discourse about CBAs since July 16 when the provincial government announced a new construction framework on public infrastructure projects.

Somehow, CBAs have been pitched as exclusive — a contract that rewards some and penalizes others. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Tom Sigurdson
Tom Sigurdson

Under a CBA, British Columbians finally and rightfully benefit from public infrastructure projects in B.C. The model prioritizes job and training opportunities for Indigenous workers, local residents, women in trades, apprentices and people with disabilities. It also ensures workers receive union wages and benefits for the duration of a given project. And it closes the door on temporary foreign workers in cases where local, B.C. or Canadian workers could do the job first.

Although the BC Building Trades represents more than 58 per cent of the non-residential construction sector, all contractors — union and non-union — are welcome to bid on a project under a CBA and bring their core team to the job.

All qualified workers will be given the opportunity to work on the project, starting with local residents, Indigenous workers and underrepresented groups such as women in the trades.

Yes, workers who are on the job for 30 days will be covered by a union contract for the duration of the project, and that is in order to ensure they are paid union wages, receive union benefits and have access to union training and safety programs.

Union membership ensures workers doing the same job at the same level get the same wage, and that’s fair. Furthermore, union coverage cannot be used as an organizing tool. Non-union contractors working on the project remain non-union throughout and upon completion of the project.

Critics of CBAs always turn to the Vancouver Island Highway project, which was built under a Project Labour Agreement (PLA), as evidence that CBAs do not work.

They cite an old Vancouver Board of Trade (VBT) paper written in 1994, six years before the Island Highway was even finished. The VBT report was hyperbole, pure and simple. It projected the PLA would increase costs when in fact the B.C. auditor general found the project to be “good value for money spent.”

While we’re on the topic of the Island Highway, it’s worth noting that bid competition increased from an average of 3.7 bids on traditional tendering to over six bids on the Island Highway. That certainly challenges the notion that these sorts of construction frameworks reduce competition.

And in terms of increased costs, well, it can’t get much worse than the low-bid, open-shop construction model the BC Liberals have favoured for the past 16 years.

The B.C. portion of the Evergreen line was budgeted at $410 million; final cost was $586 million, representing a 43 per cent increase.

The South Fraser Perimeter Road was budgeted at $635 million; final cost to us was $899 million, representing a 42 per cent increase.

The Vancouver Convention Centre was budgeted at $495 million; final cost to us was $841 million, representing a whopping 70 per cent increase.

And the Port Mann Bridge was budgeted at $2.3398 billion; final cost to us was $3.3 billion, representing a 41 per cent increase.

You don’t have to take my word for the advantages of CBAs as a public construction framework — not when there is so much academic research already out there.

UC Berkeley looked at PLAs and bidding outcomes in the case of college construction in California and found that “PLAs do not reduce the number of bidders nor do they raise costs.”

That’s why companies in California are turning to these agreements on major projects, like the $14 billion modernization project at Los Angeles Airport.

Then there is the report prepared for the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy at the University of Ottawa, which found that CBAs provide a unique opportunity to “do double and even triple duty generating economic, social and human capital while improving environmental outcomes.”

And just this month, a new report examining Minnesota’s prevailing wage law and its impact on construction costs found that prevailing wages keep construction costs stable, boost the economy, and that state’s Prevailing Wage Act “is the best deal for taxpayers.”

CBAs build stronger communities. Those are the facts and that is for the record.

Tom Sigurdson is the executive director of the BC Building Trades. Send Industry Voices comments or questions to editor@journalofcommerce.com.

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