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Industry Perspectives Op-Ed: Favouring unions is ‘bad for Canadian workers, bad for communities’

Ken Baerg
Industry Perspectives Op-Ed: Favouring unions is ‘bad for Canadian workers, bad for communities’

 

RE: Robert Kucheran’s Op-Ed of June 9, 2020: “Investing in Infrastructure must mean investing in Canadians.”

 

This op-ed woefully misses the mark.

Favouring union cartels for the alleged “benefit of communities and all Canadians” needs to be called out for what it is: bad for Canadian workers, bad for communities and bad for taxpayers.

The ongoing saga around the so-called Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs) is more evidence demonstrating that the traditional union movement and its political allies need a gut check.

Nowhere is that more profoundly true than in B.C. where Premier John Horgan’s relationship with the Building Trades Unions, or BTU, has led to them being selected to have exclusive bargaining rights over large-scale public infrastructure projects to the tune of many billions of dollars.

Seemingly, the allure of a windfall of union dues, health and welfare premiums, training funds and pension contributions was just too much to resist for these hand-picked unions.

As for Horgan, he telegraphed his intentions prior to being elected premier and it is now payback time for the unions who have historically made significant political contributions to his New Democratic Party.

Notwithstanding, Kucheran’s claims about the panacea to be found in these CBAs, make no mistake, these deals are nothing more than a Trojan horse for exclusive and irrational project labour agreements that reward unions representing a mere 15 per cent of the construction workforce while cutting out the remaining 85 per cent of construction workers in the province – workers who also pay taxes to build the very projects they are excluded from.

But a slightly deeper dive is warranted.

How exactly are these deals bad for Canadian workers?

Throughout history, a cornerstone of the union movement has been worker choice.

Workers could elect to work in a unionized environment, choose to organize a union in their workplace or opt to work for a non-union employer.

The fact is that the old-school unions chosen by Horgan have seen their share of the market plummet over the years. They have failed to grab the hearts and minds of today’s workers. Instead of trying to win today’s workers over, these CBAs use a legislative stick that requires any worker not currently a member of the BTU to forego their current health plan, their current pension or RRSP program, their current training program, their current team of employees and their relationship with their employer, all to prop up a system they never chose.

Furthermore, these unions do not possess the keys to training the next generation of workers. The fact is that the progressive union movement and the non-union movement together train far, far in excess of what these NDP-chosen unions do, in many trades by a margin of more than four to one.

How exactly are these deals bad for the taxpayer?

In B.C., the implementation of CBAs are to add an estimated seven per cent to the cost of a project by the government’s own projections. As if that wasn’t concern enough, the reality is that the first few projects tendered under the CBA program in B.C. have sky-rocketed in price.

The restrictions and unknowns of the CBA model have driven contractors away. Fewer contractors bidding equates to a lack of competition and inevitably, cost escalation.

And lastly, how exactly are these deals bad for communities?

Justifying the CBA model is a matter of spin and distraction. Of course, the key manner in which a community benefits from infrastructure dollars is the in the final product: a new bridge or highway, school, or hospital.

The Island Highway of the 1990s was built under a model very similar to the current CBA framework and to stay “on budget” many overpasses and interchanges were cancelled to prop up that system – a move that has resulted in traffic congestion problems that persist to this day.

The same phenomenon is at play with projects tendered under the new CBA model.

These ploys, known euphemistically as “descoping” or “contract modifications,” are nothing more than a slicing away at key elements of a project due to cost overruns. Local communities deserve better. They deserve the infrastructure promised, not a dumbed down version.

Kucheran and his ilk do not have to peel back a single layer of the onion to get to the truth. His recent op-ed is but one more glaring example of ongoing attempts to justify exclusivity over inclusivity and restrictions over opportunities.

Stimulus offered by any level of government must acknowledge the fact that this pandemic has taken a toll on all communities, on all taxpayers and on all Canadian workers. It will require a collaborative effort, a willingness to work together on an inclusive basis to get this country back on its feet.

 

Ken Baerg is the executive director of Canada Works, the Council of Progressive Canadian Unions.

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