B.C.’s much ballyhooed CBA is a fake

When the Horgan government announced last summer that its so-called Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) would deliver good-paying jobs and benefits for B.C. workers and communities, it set the bar high. But now, it’s clear that B.C.’s version of a CBA represents a new low in public policy that does not provide good value for public tax dollars or treat skilled workers fairly. What British Columbians are currently stuck with is a fake.

There’s a reason B.C.’s so-called Community Benefits Agreement is not living up to its billing. From the get-go, its main purpose was to reward the NDP government’s supporters in the Building Trades Unions. Although they constitute just 15% of B.C.’s construction workforce, they get to build all new big infrastructure projects rolled out under the so-called Community Benefits Agreement. That means 85% of the province’s construction workers are shut out of major taxpayer-funded projects unless they agree to join and pay dues to the BTUs. When workers are forced to join a union of the government’s choosing, it’s not only wrong; it’s unconstitutional.

That’s why the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA) has launched a public awareness campaign aimed at informing British Columbians about the shortcomings of the government’s labour framework. PCA is also among leading construction associations, business groups, companies and unions that are challenging the Horgan government’s restrictive CBA framework in BC Supreme Court. This lopsided arrangement robs workers of their basic constitutional rights, including freedom of association. But that’s not all that’s offside with this Horgan-style CBA.

It’s also a lousy deal for B.C. taxpayers. For example, by the government’s own admission, its CBA will add $100 million to the cost of the Pattullo Bridge replacement project. And now the price tag for the second project to be rolled out under the CBA, the four-laning of a small section of the Trans-Canada Highway, has spiralled by more than $22 million. Red tape and bureaucracy are inflating construction costs by hundreds of millions of dollars, and no amount of government backpedalling can make these massive increases more palatable to taxpayers. This misuse of taxpayer dollars leaves less funding for other needed projects from hospitals and schools to transit.

The government’s restrictive hiring rules are also discouraging many highly qualified companies from bidding on public projects. For example, the Trans-Canada Highway widening at Kicking Horse Canyon (Phase 1) attracted only four bidders. A project of this scope would ordinarily attract 15 to 20 bidders. Companies that are clearly concerned about being subjected to unworkable workforce arrangements are taking a pass on these projects. And when there are fewer bidders, there’s less competition and costs go up.

None of this would be happening if B.C.’s so-called Community Benefits Agreement was the real deal. It has all the hallmarks of a fake, a debacle that can no longer be masqueraded as a public benefit. Major infrastructure projects should be built without trampling on worker rights or jacking up construction costs. If the government is sincere about providing real community benefits when big infrastructure projects are built, it should scrap its fake CBA and try again. 

Paul de Jong is president of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada.