Court asked to strike down project labour agreements

ICBA, contractors and business groups say union-only policy for public projects unconstitutional

Joining a union should be up to the worker, not the government, says ICBA president Chris Gardner.

The Independent Contractors and Business Association is taking the provincial government to court over its project labour agreements for major projects.

The Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC), Progressive Contractors Association, Canada West Construction Union, BC Chamber of Commerce, Canadian Federation of Independent Business and several major contractors are also party to the suit.

The ICBA has filed a petition to the BC Supreme Court asking that the provincial government’s union-only hiring policy for the Pattullo Bridge and Trans Canada Highway widening project be struck down.

Under a Community Benefit Agreement, all workers employed on the projects will need to be hired through a government union hall and will be required to be a member of a union under the BC and Yukon Territory Construction Trade Council – commonly called the Building Trades Union.

The Building Trades Union represents 19 different unions, but CLAC isn’t one of them. CLAC members who want to work on the bridge or highway widening projects would have to quit CLAC and join the Building Trades Union.

“The government’s decision to force workers to join the BTU to access work on public projects is not only poor public policy, it is also unconstitutional,” says Wayne Prins, CLAC executive director.

As for the ICBA, it represents 50,000 workers in B.C., according to the organization’s petition to the court, none of whom are represented by the Building Trades Union.

The government has argued that its project labour agreement will ensure that the projects are built without work stoppages, as there is a no-strike agreement, and that it will be able to meet its targets of hiring a certain percentage of apprenticeships, women, and minorities.

The ICBA argues that those objectives could be met without a preferential union policy.

“The government has given the Building Trades Union a monopoly over the employment opportunities on these projects, for no legitimate or valid purpose,” the petitioners argue.

But this is not the first time major building projects used project labour agreements in B.C. The Island Highway was built under such an agreement, as was the Kitimat Modernization Project.

"This is the same practice that has been going on for decades in British Columbia under Project Labour Agreements between the Allied Hydro Council and, for example, Columbia Hydro Constructors," Tom Sigurdson, executive director for BC Building Trades, said in response to the court challenge.

"These agreements, enacted under previous Liberal and Social Credit governments, also require membership in an appropriate union within 30 days of being hired. Business groups have elected to challenge the Community Benefits framework put in place under the NDP government. They have not challenged the agreements put in place under the Liberal and Social Credit governments containing the same union-only membership requirements. This challenge is a political statement."

There is at least one court precedent that has upheld the right of provincial governments or Crown corporations to have compulsory union membership for public projects.

The Merit Contractors Association of Manitoba had sought a legal ruling that Manitoba's power utility contravened the charter of Rights and Freedoms with a union-only hiring policy. It sought a declaration from the court that compulsory union membership was unconstitutional. The application was dismissed by the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench and the Court of Appeal. Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear Merit's appeal.

The provincial government has confirmed that the project labour agreement for the $1.377 billion Pattullo Bridge replacement project will account for 4% to 7% to the cost, which is $55 million to $90 million.

But if the project labour agreements are extended to other public projects, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business estimates it could add $2.4 billion to $4.8 billion in additional labour costs.

Under the new project labour agreements, any contractor can bid on the government projects. But if any of their members end up working on the government projects, they will need to join a government-approved union, if they work on the project for more than 30 days.

The ICBA argues that the province’s new preferential policy excludes thousands of construction workers and contractors and that “forced unionization” is unconstitutional and discriminates against roughly 85% of the construction workers in B.C. who don’t belong to a union.

“The choice of which union to join, if any, should be made by the workers through a secret ballot, and should not be imposed by government,” ICB president Chris Gardner said in a news release.

“No matter how a construction company organizes its workforce, in this province every construction company should have the right to bid and win work funded by taxpayers.”

nbennett@biv.com

@nbennett_biv