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Industry Voices Op-Ed: The truth about Community Benefit Agreements

Robert Blakely
Industry Voices Op-Ed: The truth about Community Benefit Agreements

 

Industry Voices Op-Ed columns reflect the opinion of the author and not that of ConstructConnect’s Journal of Commerce, the company, its other associated publications or its staff.

The leader of British Columbia’s Open Shop Movement fulminates mightily over the recently-held Community Benefits Conference; he mispresents facts and perhaps that isn’t surprising because he is attempting to defend a status quo that his organization has helped bring to pass.

It is a fact that British Columbia has a significant skills shortage. This, despite the fact that numerous projects have been built and the Open Shop has had a significant share of that work. Yet, they have continued to push their low bid agenda resulting in workers being paid less, trained less and scrimping on things like safety and quality.

What exactly has that Open Shop status quo given us? Well, there is the severe skills shortage, there is a smaller bang for our construction buck, more disputes over commercial terms and erosion in quality construction. Arguably, they are defending a system that has worked for them at the expense of the people they employ.

Construction is a process-driven, highly integrated, complex business. Everyone pays the same for engineering, mobilization, fabrication, materials, equipment and inspection services. The only real flexible component is wages.

Do you think it is right to spend public dollars on contractors paying workers the lowest possible wage or would it be preferable to have everyone pay a prevailing industry wage, provide benefits, actively train apprentices and give underrepresented groups a chance in the industry? The differentiator in successful bidders should be the ability to manage, organize and efficiently construct. Safety and quality should be a part of our value chain.

There were several presentations at the Community Benefits Conference that talked about why a significant number of highly sophisticated and highly successful Canadian companies use a form of Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) called a project labour agreement. They use these sorts of arrangements because it makes sense and achieves goals that otherwise would not be met.

These include engaging local people, Indigenous employment, the hiring of women and underrepresented groups.

Studies show the most organized and best managed jobs (union jobs) are the safest. We ought to invest in safe jobs.   

Should our tax money being spent to purchase construction also achieve public policy goals? The answer seems self-evident.

The argument that a CBA will cost so much more is just rubbish. Remember an important fact, the labour component on a project like a hydro dam is somewhere around 20 per cent of the cost of the job. A cost overrun of any magnitude could not have been prevented even if the workers agreed to work for free and brought their own lunch.

It is about effective organization and management. We want to encourage excellence not shoddiness as the differentiator when companies bid on these projects.

The argument that CBA reduces competition is also hollow. Any qualified contractor, union or non-union, can bid the work. They simply apply the agreement’s terms and at the end of the job they go away. 

That is the way hydro projects in B.C. have been built over the past 60 years. CBA’s do not require those who don’t want to join a union to in fact join. What they do is require a fair wage to be paid to every worker on the jobsite.

CBA’s are designed to benefit people in the communities where these projects are taking place. They are special interest focused so far as to say, if a CBA in place for the construction of a power plant in Burnaby benefits folks in Burnaby first, then those in Burnaby are a special interest group. And in that case, I support CBAs that support Burnaby residents. Through apprentice hiring provisions in particular, CBA’s will help provinces – and Canada as a whole – manage the forecasted skills shortage.

CBAs ensure public projects provide opportunities to qualified local residents —  and apprentices, Indigenous workers and women in the trades — because we need to grow and diversify the skilled trades to ensure we have the people to build our infrastructure today and for years to come.

The way we spend our tax dollars ought to get the maximum value for us in more than just building “stuff”; we ought to be building a nation. 

Maybe it is time to leave the champions of the low-wage behind and get the maximum value we can get from safety, quality and yes, careers for people who just need an opportunity to flourish.

Robert Blakely is the Canadian operating officer of Canada’s Building Trades Unions. Send Industry Voices comments or questions to editor@journalofcommerce.com.

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