Public infrastructure projects to be union-only

B.C. government confirms bridges and other projects to be built with project labour agreements

ICBA fears requiring all workers on public projects like bridges to be unionized will inflate costs.

The B.C. government is moving ahead with a $1.4 billion replacement of the Pattullo Bridge, but only BC Building Trades workers need apply.

Even if you belong to another construction trade union, like the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC), that won't get you the NDP stamp of approval.

British Columbia will return to being a union-only shop when it comes to large public infrastructure projects like bridges and roads, which will inflate costs of large public projects, non-union contractors and business association like the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade (GVBOT) warn.

"We have concerns that today’s announcement will inevitably lead to higher costs and added complexity for public infrastructure projects, which will ultimately cost taxpayers," GVBIT said in a press release.

"Our organization acknowledges and respects collective bargaining in both the private and public sectors. However, we do not believe it is government's role to pre-select a contractor type (i.e., unionized or non-unionized) before a bidding process even begins."

The John Horgan government announced July 16 that it is putting out a request for proposals on the construction of a new Pattullo Bridge – the same day it also announced that it and other major public projects will be built with project labour agreements, although that’s not what the government is calling them.

But the “community benefits agreements” announced Monday July 16 do the same thing: force all contractors that win bids on government projects to hire only workers belonging to a union. Specifically, they will need to belong to the BC Building Trades union, which represents only 15% of the construction workforce in B.C., according to the ICBA.

The BC Building Trades refutes that number, saying it actually represents 58% of the non-residential construction sector in B.C.

The government said the first major public infrastructure projects to be built under the project labour agreements will be the Pattullo Bridge replacement and a four-laning of the Trans Canada Highway between Kamloops and Alberta.

“The government has its finger firmly on rewind, reverting to a 70s style labour model that will prove costly for taxpayers and workers,” Rieghardt van Enter, B.C. regional director for the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA), said in a press release.

The government is establishing a new Crown corporation to manage the project labour agreements – BC Infrastructure Benefits Inc. It will have a budget of $5 million just for the first two major projects – the Pattullo Bridge and the four-laning of the Trans Canada Highway.

The agreements will require a certain percentage of apprentices to be hired on the projects, and will also give hiring preference to First Nations, women and "traditionally under-represented groups."

Project labour agreements were required under the NDP government in B.C. in the 1990s for projects like the Island Highway on Vancouver Island.

While non-union contractors can bid on government projects, if they win a contract, they would be required to hire only unionized workers through hiring halls through the new Crown corporation.

That means non-union trades people and labourers will be forced to join unions, at least temporarily, and be forced to pay union dues and into pension funds from which they may never benefit. Based on the Island highway project, the ICBA estimates workers could be forced to pay $9.6 million in union pension plan contributions that they will never benefit from.

“For years, John Horgan has promised his political allies in the old-fashioned building trades unions that he would tilt the playing field in their favour,” ICBA president Chris Gardner said in a press release.

“Today, it appears he will try and force that to happen through a restrictive and regressive PLA model for tendering government projects.

“Unfortunately for the taxpayers paying for provincial projects, this will mean much higher costs and it will give 15 per cent of the construction workforce – the ones who gave millions of dollars to the NDP – a monopoly on work.”

CLAC fears a kind of union raiding may occur, since CLAC's 7,000 members don't belong to the right kind of union in the NDP government's eyes. CLAC members would have to join the BC Building Trades to be eligible for work on government projects like the Pattullo Bridge, said CLAC spokesman Ryan Bruce.

"With this announcement today, the government is dictating which unions can participate in public projects now, and which ones don't qualify," Bruce said.

"They say they don't allow workers to belong to other unions, so you may have to end your relationship with us. Workers do change unions from time to time. But there is also a labour model, and a relationship we have with our members, that shouldn't preclude them from accessing public work just because they're members of CLAC."

Asked how he could ensure projects won’t go over budget, Premier John Horgan cited project labour agreements from the 1950s and 1960s, when dams were built under the WAC Bennett government.

“We had a fixed labour pool, we had fixed contracts, no-strike provisions,” Horgan said. “Those are the types of things that keep projects on track."

He added low unemployment means stiffer competition for recruiting workers.

“That means we’re going to have a difficult time recruiting and retaining workers, unless we’re in a position to make sure that there are significant benefits for them as they come into the projects.”

nbennett@biv.com

@nbennett_biv