RHETORIC FOLLOWS NEW LABOUR RULES
The B.C. government’s VICTORIA announcement this week of new union-only labour rules on building projects sparked a deluge of rhetoric from both advocates and opponents of the change. Here’s how it will actually work:
Q Do the new rules really force people to join a union to work on the Pattullo Bridge or Kamloops to Alberta highway projects?
A Yes. All workers on the site will be required to join a union within 30 days and pay dues. They won’t be able to choose the union, either. The NDP government has a select group under a community benefit agreement with the Allied Infrastructure and Related Construction Council, a new organization that acts on behalf of 19 trades unions. If a worker belongs to a non-affiliated union, which isn’t part of the B.C. Building Trades or on that group of 19, they’ll have to register with one of the governmentapproved unions.
Q The B.C. Building Trades says “all contractors are welcome to bid on the project” whether union or not. Is this true?
A That statement, while technically correct, is misleading. Any company — union or non-union — can bid on the contracts. But in reality, whoever wins must allow their employees to join a union. In the case of the Vancouver Island Highway Project in the 1990s, which used the same union-only labour model, 23 of the 49 prime contracts went to non-union contractors.
Q Will the changes cause projects to cost more?
A The government acknowledged when the near-identical model was used in the 1990s that the union-only provisions do cost more. But they argued there are corresponding savings, and the model provides more certainty, set costs, fixed wages, apprentice spots, a no-strike promise and other social benefits. “The cost of making sure we’re training the next generation of workers is one I think British Columbians understand,” said Premier John Horgan.
Q How many construction workers are actually unionized in British Columbia?
A Both the union and non-union sides have produced competing numbers. B.C. Building Trades says its 40,000 unionized members make up 58 per cent of qualified non-residential trades. But this only counts the type of trades that can build highways and bridges. The Independent Contractors and Businesses Association says if you look at the total number of construction jobs in British Columbia (roughly 250,000) the unionized rate falls to 16 per cent.
Q How do locals, Aboriginals, female workers and apprentices get priority?
A Priority will be given to these workers first. It’s not clear yet how a “local” worker will be defined, but on the island highway project in the 1990s it was someone who lived within 100 kilometres. Almost 95 per cent of the 1,000 workers on the island highway project lived on the Island. The benefit agreements will contain enforceable clauses that 25 per cent of the jobs go to apprentices, many of whom require 1,600 hours of experience time on tools outside of classrooms to advance through their training.
Q Why does the government need to create a new Crown corporation to do all this?
A The Crown corporation, B.C. Infrastructure Benefits Inc., becomes the employer of all the tradespeople on a project. It handles payroll and human resources, and acts as a “hiring hall,” working with the unions to dispatch skilled workers to a job site when needed. The private companies that win contracts turn their labour over to the Crown corporation, but remain as supervisors and foremen. The unions collect mandatory dues and handle pension contributions, health benefits, safety training and any workplace grievances.
Q Did a similar union-only model cause the Vancouver Island Highway Project to go over budget?
A This a contentious point, disputed by competing studies, with no clear answer. The project expanded the road between Victoria and Campbell River during the mid-to-late 1990s and cost almost $1.2 billion. The NDP government at the time acknowledged it did increase costs, but disputed how much.
An auditor general’s report into the project’s planning and design — written before the highway was fully completed — noted the design provided “good value for money,” though the project was under constant threat of blowing its budget. That caused it to abandon some interchange plans and highway upgrades.
The Vancouver Board of Trade, which opposed the union-only model, commissioned a report by a chartered accountant in 1994, also before the project was completed. It estimated labour costs were almost 38 per cent higher due to the union-only model, after adding benefits, mandatory union dues and workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance payments. That added $73 million to the project bill, according to the report.
Then-employment minister Glen Clark dismissed the study as “ridiculous” and partisan. He did also acknowledge that labour costs were more under the mode, but argued it was worth it to secure labour peace during construction.
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which supported the union-only model, wrote a report in 2000 that described it as “stunningly successful” in achieving as high as 22 per cent equity hiring for Aboriginal, women and minority workers at its peak.
The Island Highway union deals included thousands of tax dollars put into a number of special funds maintained by the unions for various purposes. Then-opposition leader Gordon Campbell alleged some of that money might go back to the NDP’s coffers, which caused him to get sued by a local of the ironworkers union. Campbell won when the court ruled some of the money might well have ended up back in the hands of the NDP.
Q What about other major government projects, like new hospitals, schools, bridges and roads?
A Each infrastructure project will be assessed on a case-by-case basis, according to the Ministry of Transportation. But you can expect the union-only construction rule to expand. Horgan described this vision Monday: “Where we’re expending public dollars, it’s our view that we need to have a public benefit.” He specifically cited “good wages for people building the roads, bridges, transit and hospitals of the future.” In the 1990s, the NDP set a threshold of highway projects exceeding $50 million. Horgan’s vision appears much broader. The current NDP government plans to spend tens of billions on capital projects in the next few years.