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Western open shops deliver distinct benefits

Peter Caulfield
Western open shops deliver distinct benefits

The open shop movement in Canada and the provincial associations that represent it are as different as the jurisdictions in which they’re located and the contracting companies they represent.


Although all of the four provincial open shop associations in western Canada offer benefits plans, training and advocacy, each has its own distinct offerings and personality.

For example, the benefits providing arm of Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of British Columbia (ICBA) offers a Green Benefit Plan, which it bills as Canada’s first carbon-neutral group health insurance plan.

"Every year we measure the emissions associated with business activities, make reductions where possible and, through a third party, offset the balance by investing in offset projects," said Benefit Services Ltd. (BSL) president Alain Bergeron.

A carbon offset is an investment in a project with measurable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Although emissions still occur, offsets help fund reduction projects elsewhere.

To make a plan carbon-neutral, everything from office space to paper usage and even the policy holder’s travel to and from the doctor is calculated.

"The data is used to estimate the emissions per insurance policy," said Bergeron. "The emissions are then neutralized through the purchase of carbon offsets, at no cost to the policy holder."

In addition to being a benefits provider, ICBA president Philip Hochstein says his association is the single largest registrar of apprentices in B.C.

"We have 1,400 registered apprentices in all the construction trades this year," he said.

ICBA’s advocacy is also focused on its Growing the Economy campaign.

"We want to help get approval for such major B.C. projects as the Ajax Mine, the Woodfibre LNG (liquid natural gas) plant and the Trans Mountain Expansion Project," said Hochstein.

"ICBA wants to help get projects to ‘yes’ and advance responsible development in the province."

The oldest open shop construction association in Canada, ICBA has about 1,200 member companies with15,000-18,000 employees.

Like BSL and ICBA, Mercon Benefit Services Inc. is separate from Merit Contractors Association (Merit Alberta), which established the company as the administrator of its benefits plan in 1986.

Mercon offers two benefit programs. The Hour Bank benefit plan is designed for field workers. The Office Supervisory plan is an optional plan for companies that also have salaried administration staff.

"We are the benefits provider for open shop construction associations in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador," said Brad Wright, vice-president of Benefit Services.

"Mercon is also a benefits provider for other construction associations, such as the Saskatchewan Construction Association and some local construction associations in Canada."

Merit Alberta started in the mid-1980s and today has more than 1,400 member companies.

"Representing more than 50,000 employees, we are the largest open shop construction association in Canada," said Merit Alberta president Malcolm Kirkland.

Despite its extensive benefits program, Merit Alberta doesn’t emphasize it when it is recruiting new members.

"We focus on the open shop principles of openness, transparency and fairness," said Kirkland.

Unlike its Alberta counterpart, Merit Contractors Association of Saskatchewan is not shy about touting its benefits plan.

"Our slogan is ‘Join for the benefits and stay for the rest’," said executive director Karen Low.

In addition to its hour bank plan, Merit Saskatchewan offers a First Nations benefit plan.

First Nations and status Indian employees have reduced coverage – and reduced premiums – so as not to duplicate coverage provided by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.

The First Nations benefits plan includes life insurance, accidental death insurance, long-term disability, optional short-term disability, out of country travel, employee and family assistance plan (EFAP) and best doctors coverage.

With 300 member companies representing 5,000 employees, Merit Saskatchewan is smaller than either the ICBA or Merit Alberta.

The advocacy work of Merit Contractors Association of Manitoba (Merit Manitoba) is focused on an apparent anomaly within its provincial government move to legislate open tendering on closed projects.

"There are those who suggest that Manitoba Hydro’s floodway project, east side (of Lake Winnipeg) road project, electricity generation projects and the Bipole III transmission line projects are open (to all contractors)," former Merit Manitoba executive director Harvey Miller told the federal Transport, Infrastructure and Communities Committee in 2013.

"They are not. All these projects combined for approximately $24 billion of construction are technically available to all contractors. But they are subject to traditional building trades union collective agreements and the provisions in these agreements essentially close the project to open shop contractors."

Merit Manitoba has 270 contractor members with more than 5,000 employees.

Quick Facts: Western Canada open shop association member benefits

ICBA (1,200 member companies)  - health benefit plan offers a green benefit plan, Canada’s first carbon neutral group health insurance plan

Merit AB (1,400 member companies) - health benefit plan offers a two-fold benefit plan, one plan is an hour bank benefit plan for field workers and a supervisory plan for salaried staff

Merit SK (300 member companies) - health benefit plan also offers a two-fold benefit plan, offers a hour bank benefit plan for field workers and a first nations benefit plan

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