Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs) support a variety of hiring initiatives in the B.C. construction industry.
They are also a contentious, even emotive subject, with the agreement-supporting current provincial government and organized labour on one side, the construction industry on the other and little common ground in between.
Sharon G.K. Singh, a partner in Vancouver law firm Bennett Jones LLP, says who CBAs benefit and how “depends upon who you ask. There’s a lot of dispute on this topic. [Nevertheless] they are expanding both in scope and use from all levels of government.”
Because much of the commentary on the agreements has shed more heat than light, herewith a balanced examination of CBAs and how their use can be justified.
Bur first, a note of caution.
CBAs contain intertwined economic, social and politics aspects, not all of which are clearly visible.
How you interpret and evaluate CBAs depends in part on which of the spaghetti strands you focus on and the importance you give them.
In 2018, B.C. Premier John Horgan said key provincial infrastructure projects would be built under a new CBA, with provisions for quotas for apprentices, preferential hiring of women and Indigenous workers and a requirement that workers on the projects be unionized.
The first two projects covered by the agreement were the Pattullo Bridge replacement project over the Fraser River and the widening of the Trans-Canada Highway between Kamloops and Alberta.
“A CBA is essentially an investment in the future,” said Brynn Bourke, interim executive director of the BC Building Trades Council. “The agreements prioritize training and apprenticeship for local workers and underrepresented groups in the skilled trades… which means our province will be well-positioned to manage any trades shortage.”
In addition, “workers who have so far been left behind by these opportunities to build B.C.” will have the chance to get the skills and experience they need to support themselves and their families with careers in the skilled trades.
“The wages and benefits on a CBA are determined by collective agreements, which means workers are paid equitably based solely on their experience in their trade,” said Bourke. “CBAs bring more certainty to project costs. The low-bid, no-benefit model of construction increases the cost of public infrastructure projects.”
The BC Construction Association (BCCA) has a different take on CBAs
“We don’t have any problem with the goals of community benefits – local hiring, apprenticeships ratios, Indigenous hiring and environmental stewardship,” said BCCA president Chris Atchison.
In reality, says Atchison, the government’s CBA is a project labour agreement that impinges on a worker’s right to choose by requiring all workers on a public project to join a union and to be employed by the province.
“The BCCA wants a balanced approach to public procurement and we don’t think the government should be playing politics with this,” said Atchison.
Philip Hochstein, past president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association, says CBAs have three strikes against them:
By inflating the cost of individual projects, they reduce the number of public projects that can be funded;
By requiring workers to join a government-prescribed union, CBAs eliminate their right to choose how they are represented in the workplace; and
CBAs force workers to pay for benefits; such as pensions, they may never qualify to receive.
Hochstein says the provincial government owner of public projects has every right to do what it wants with public money.
“But all of the public, not just some, should benefit,” he said. “The same public policy objectives can be achieved, without raising project costs, by the government specifying certain community benefits in the contract or the contractor doesn’t get paid.”
CBAs are more than just the sum of their parts. A labour economist can give us the eyes to see the big picture.
“We know this model [CBAs] cannot out-perform the status quo in terms of project completion time or meeting costs,” said Herb Emery, a University of New Brunswick economist. “Otherwise, construction companies would have at least attempted it.”
Emery says public procurement with CBAs can’t compete with procurement based on low cost to the taxpayer unless there are excess profits, due to insufficient construction market competition, that CBAs can extract.
Ultimately, he says, the case for or against CBAs depends on how willing voters are to trade income and public amenities for other things they value, such as more equal income distribution, social justice priorities and a cleaner environment.
Emery says government has to evaluate the voters’ preference against its budget constraint.
“So long as voters are willing to pay the higher tax price of a decision that does not prioritize as low a cost as possible [on a public project], then there is a case for CBAs,” said Emery.