The province’s construction industry is sharply divided over the Horgan government’s rules for getting big infrastructure projects built. And for good reason. Each time a project is rolled out under the NDP’s so-called Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), it’s under false pretenses. This is not an arrangement that generates all kinds of new opportunities in construction, as some would have us believe. Instead, B.C.’s CBA is a shameful example of how skilled workers should not be treated, at a time when they’re needed more than ever.
The new head of the B.C. Building Trades Unions (BTU) would benefit from a reality check. Andrew Mercier’s recent suggestion that the majority of B.C.’s construction industry is fighting for “right-to-work” legislation is completely inaccurate and sorely misinformed. Such a misinterpretation is surprising for someone with so many years of experience in labour law. For the record, a coalition of leading construction associations, business groups, companies and unions, including CLAC are urging B.C.’s Supreme Court to uphold the fundamental freedoms currently enjoyed by British Columbia’s workers — the right to freely associate and organize without political involvement or interference.
Those rights went out the window when the Horgan government chose to reward its favoured building trades unions by funnelling billions of dollars in construction work their way under the guise of a CBA. Any workers who want to build the new Pattullo Bridge, the Broadway corridor and additional Trans-Canada Highway lanes between Kamloops and Alberta must join and pay dues to the building trades unions, while never thinking twice about having their pensions and benefits suspended. The early pioneers of Canada’s labour movement must be wondering how things got so twisted in a province where fundamental worker rights are being sacrificed, all in the name of politics.
Given that 85 percent of B.C.’s construction workers have chosen not to belong to the BTUs, they are effectively shut out of key public projects. To claim that the NDP’s hiring restrictions are somehow benefiting most workers and creating far more opportunities for youth, women and Indigenous people in construction is simply not the case. The end result will be fewer trained apprentices at a time when the province will require tens of thousands of workers to complete major infrastructure projects.
It’s also a real stretch to suggest that challenging the B.C. government’s hiring rules is a “waste of taxpayers’ time and money.” Imagine the tax savings if the government did the right thing by scrapping the CBA and upholding worker rights? By its own admission, the government’s CBA has added $100 million to the cost of the Pattullo bridge, and that’s just for starters. A government that allows public construction costs to skyrocket, then borrows up to $17 billion in a budget to build new taxpayer funded infrastructure, should be questioned, not commended.
Anyone new to this issue might be forgiven for mixing terminologies and confusing a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) with a Project Labour Agreement (PLA). The two serve very different purposes. For the record, the John Hart Dam was recently upgraded through a PLA with the B.C. Building Trades. That project was tendered through a fair, open and competitive process. British Columbians would be far better served if all public infrastructure projects were tendered this way, giving every qualified worker an equal opportunity to build major projects.
CLAC and the coalition fighting the NDP’s needlessly restrictive rules for building public projects, support more apprentices in B.C. than other union or organization. It’s a track record we’re proud of. We don’t fixate on who spends what on training. Our focus is on ensuring the next generation has every opportunity to learn new skills and work in construction. We see this as a collective commitment, not a contest. We’d like to believe the B.C. government shares that goal. But we won’t be convinced until it finds a way to give all construction workers an equal shot at building many of B.C.’s most important infrastructure projects.
Kevin Kohut is BC Director of the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC). Send comments and Industry Perspectives Op-ed ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.