Reaction to a recent poll on labour agreements in B.C. illustrates the difference of opinion on the topic among some industry stakeholders.
Conducted by Mainstreet Research on March 5 and 6 for the B.C. chapter of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA), the poll surveyed 1,511 B.C. residents and found 77 per cent of respondents opposed restrictive project labour agreements (PLA), also known as community benefits agreements, used by past governments.
It also found 92.4 per cent of all respondents said it is “important the B.C. government gets good value for investment in public infrastructure.”
BC Hydro adopted an open shop labour model in 2015 for the massive Site C dam project, and most projects in the province are open to both open shop and union contractors, with the majority of B.C. contractors operating as open shop.
But PCA BC regional director Rieghardt van Enter said he was concerned due to remarks last month by B.C. Premier John Horgan that the Pattullo Bridge and future public construction projects should be built under union-only PLAs, with commitments by participating unions not to strike and to meet an agreed-upon quota of apprentices on each project.
Van Enter also said the PCA is concerned that restrictive agreements will mean increased project costs.
“With tens of billions of dollars of important public infrastructure projects potentially getting underway in the coming years, it is imperative we get this right the first time,” he said. “An impressive body of research shows that restricting the number of bidders can drive up the costs of a project by as much as 30 per cent. Allowing all workers and companies — regardless of union affiliation or lack thereof — to bid on projects ensures the best value for taxpayers.”
But not all industry stakeholders agree.
“The problem with this poll is that it’s completely inaccurate,” BC Building Trades executive director Tom Sigurdson claimed.
The poll is misleading, Sigurdson said, “which is understandable given the nature of the question.”
One of the questions asked in the poll is, “Some labour groups in the province advocate restrictive PLAs where only companies and workers affiliated with certain unions are allowed to bid for government contracts and build those projects. Do you believe that restrictive PLAs would be in the interests of all British Columbians?”
B.C. has never had PLAs that prevented companies from bidding on union projects, Sigurdson stated.
“They need to show where companies have been prevented,” he said.
Sigurdson also took issue with use of the word “workers” in regards to bidding for projects.
“Workers don’t bid on projects, contractors do,” he said.
“We applaud the government’s desire to increase the number of women, Indigenous workers and apprentices. That can be accomplished within inclusive PLAs. But restrictive PLAs cut out hundreds of B.C. companies and many thousands of BC tradespeople from being able to bid and work on public projects,” van Enter added.
Sigurdson countered that his organization has never advocated for any model that restricts companies from projects.
“That would eliminate many companies that get can First Nations and other groups onto projects. It’s an absolute fallacy on their part,” he said.
But the Building Trades will push for community benefits agreements which require provisions for First Nations, women and other marginalized groups, and ensures apprentices are part of the work force, Sigurdson said.
“This poll is selfish and self-serving,” Sigurdson concluded.