Tension over community benefits agreements (CBAs) has reached the B.C. Supreme Court.
A group of British Columbia construction associations, unions, businesses and individuals have filed a petition to the court to strike down the hiring model in recently announced CBAs which they state restricts work on certain large government infrastructure projects to those employees willing to join the Building Trades union working on the project.
The new CBA framework was announced in July along with BC Infrastructure Benefits Inc., a crown corporation to handle hiring and management of workers on public infrastructure projects. The first CBA will be on the Pattullo Bridge project which will soon begin the tendering process. An upcoming project to four-lane the Trans-Canada Highway between Kamloops and Alberta will also fall under this new regime.
Among the signatories of the petition are the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association (ICBA), the Vancouver Regional Construction Association (VRCA), the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA) and the British Columbia Construction Association. The B.C. Chamber of Commerce, Canadian Federation of Independent Business and the Christian Labour Association of Canada have also signed the petition along with several B.C. construction companies and individuals.
“We filed this petition in the B.C. Supreme Court because the union-only hiring model the NDP government has rolled out is unfair and discriminatory,” said ICBA president Chris Gardner.
“You have 85 per cent of the construction workforce in this province who are not affiliated with or represented by the Building Trades unions, and therefore are facing some really stark choices as tendering goes forward with the $1.4 billion Pattullo Bridge project.”
Gardner said if a company bids successfully on part of the work on the bridge they will have to join one of the Building Trades unions to work on the project.
“We think that’s not fair, it’s not right, and we’re asking the court to strike it down,” he said.
PCA president Paul de Jong echoed Gardner and said his organization along with the other signatories to the petition were concerned about the number of considerations in CBAs.
“A costly employer is being created that takes away the ability of the contractor to manage their own workforce. We’re concerned about the lack of competition because superimposed regulations are being drawn from the Building Trades,” de Jong said.
Gardner also questioned the stated goals of the CBA to provide more opportunity and training.
“I don’t see how you train more people by giving work to a monopoly, to a group of unions controlling 15 per cent of the workforce. That does not make any sense,” Gardner stated.
“You train more people and provide opportunities for young people by working with everyone in construction and investing more in training spaces and providing incentives and opportunities for training.”
The industry needs to come together and makes sure it doesn’t cascade down to smaller ministries
— Chris Atchison
British Columbia Construction Association
BC Building Trades executive director Tom Sigurdson dismissed claims that unions would have monopoly control over the employment of construction workers as “just not true.”
“We are trying to build a workforce for tomorrow, and the community benefit agreement is very much about apprentices, Indigenous inclusion and women in the trades. I would challenge the three organizations listed in this petition to show us what they spend on training. We have over $50 million in capital assets on an annual basis, and we spend over $18 million on our apprentices and programs. We have 7,204 either in apprenticeships or in upgrading programs,” Sigurdson said.
Project labour agreements have been part of labour procurement since the 1950s, Sigurdson added, and it was the previous Liberal government that changed the labour procurement process on the Site C hydroelectric project in northeastern B.C.
“On Site C, there are hundreds of out-of-province workers. The Liberals changed procurement on the Canada Line and we had 35 Costa Rican workers working underground at less than $4 an hour,” Sigurdson claimed. “Now we’re trying to get back to a point where with a community benefit agreement, we are going to have benefits that will attract young workers to the trades.”
VRCA operations manager Roxanne Schultz said the association added its signature and support to the petition the because the government’s decision “is bad public policy.”
“VRCA has always supported the goals of increasing apprenticeships in B.C., providing good-paying jobs for local workers and increasing participation in the construction industry by First Nations and under-represented groups, however, there is no logical reason to tie these goals to mandating workers to join a union,” Schultz said.
Giving unions the sole ability to decide who works on each part of the project is unacceptable, she added, as it means construction companies may not be able to use their usual employees, potentially affecting safety and leading to productivity problems.
BCCA president Chris Atchison voiced concern that the precedent set by CBAs on major infrastructure projects might spill over to other parts of government.
“The industry needs to come together and makes sure it doesn’t cascade down to smaller ministries, health authorities, or municipalities where they interpret this direction from government as carte blanche to implement these ideals,” Atchison said.
“We do understand that policy is stated to be limited at these two projects and we hope that’s where it stays with opportunity for full consultation and review.”
In a statement to the Journal of Commerce, the B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure said they are aware of the petition and that the province has not yet had an opportunity to file a response, but that “government stands behind the principles of the Community Benefits Agreement to deliver good paying jobs, better training and apprenticeships and more trades opportunities for Indigenous people, women and youth around the province.
“Under the CBA approach, all contractors can bid on projects, union or non-union. Although workers must join a union while they work on the project (as is the case with all unionized worksites in B.C.), they do not need to be unionized before or after working on the project. With CBAs, wages are locked in for the duration of the project and no strikes or lockouts can take place. These predictable labour costs help ensure projects are completed on time and on budget,” the ministry added.