Unfair and Unopen
/ Author: Ryan Bruce 686 Rate this article:
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Unfair and Unopen

The BC government’s decision to restrict who can build public infrastructure in the province is costing CLAC members an opportunity to work on projects their tax dollars are paying for. And they’re not taking it sitting down

By Ryan Bruce and Don Mundy

CLAC MEMBERS FROM ACROSS BC came together with contractors at the BC legislature in Victoria on November 19, 2019, with a simple message for Premier John Horgan and his government: scrap the so-called community benefits agreement (CBA).

What is the CBA? Introduced last year in the British Columbia legislature, the CBA is an exclusionary deal between the provincial government and the international construction trade unions, known as the Building Trades Unions (BTU), all with headquarters in Washington, DC.

What’s wrong with the agreement? The CBA bars the 85 percent of BC’s construction workforce who are not BTU members from accessing work on public infrastructure projects—projects that their tax dollars are contributing to. This means that those who choose to be a member of another union not affiliated with the BTU, or who choose to not be a member of a union at all, have been frozen out of these projects.

This is a fundamental breech of their right to freedom of association guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

At the day in the legislature in November, CLAC members urged Premier Horgan to do the right thing before any further damage is done. The day included a raucous question period as the governing NDP were hammered with question after question as to why they were shutting out so many construction workers from work on provincial taxpayer-funded public projects.

“Many of BC’s construction workers would have to change their union membership and put their pension and benefits packages on hold to work on public projects,” says Local 68 member Dawn Rebelo, who is an equipment operator employed by Peace River Hydro Partners Construction Ltd. at the Site C Clean Energy Project. “That isn’t right, and it sure isn’t constitutional for a government to treat workers so unfairly. I’ve invested my time and effort, and not only that, my union [CLAC] has invested time and effort in me. When that choice is taken away from me, it makes me angry. It’s unacceptable and I won’t stand for it!”

THE BC GOVERNMENT HAS ALL the evidence it needs to come to its senses and conclude that its restrictive CBA is a costly mistake for all British Columbians. It tramples on workers’ rights, drives away good contractors, and jacks up the cost of taxpayer-funded infrastructure projects.

“If I wanted to work in Vancouver on one of those projects where they’re just using the Building Trades Unions, I wouldn’t be able to do it,” says Charlie Banza, a Local 68 steward for over 15 years. “I would have to join one of their unions, pay an initiation fee, and pay higher union dues. I don’t want to do that. If I want to work on one of those projects, I should be able to make the choice of who I work for and which union I want to represent me.”

The big question: why carry on with such a lousy deal? BC’s new rules for building public infrastructure fall short on every count.

Premier Horgan’s deal with his friends in the BTU, which donate millions to the NDP, hurts not only workers but also taxpayers. Warnings a year ago of higher public costs have already come true. Government red tape and restrictive hiring rules are discouraging many highly qualified companies from bidding on public projects.

For example, the first project tendered under the complicated CBA model was the relatively small Illecillewaet Highway expansion project, which saw only four companies bid and an increased budget of $22 million, or 35 percent. Over a dozen companies would normally bid on a project like this. It is estimated that the NDP’s favouritism toward the BTU will add $100 million to the cost of the Pattullo Bridge replacement alone.

With fewer bidders, there’s less competition and costs go up. When public tax dollars are squandered in this way, there’s less funding for other needed projects—from hospitals to schools to transit.

“My company is not going to put a bid in on the Pattullo Bridge project because of the CBA,” says Brian Stoker, a Local 68 member working for Ledcor Group in Kitimat, BC. “That’s something I’d want to be a part of, but now I can’t.”

In a show of solidarity, Local 501 member and steward Jacquie Baker, who works in the healthcare sector in the Lower Mainland, came to Victoria to support her fellow CLAC members working in construction.

“The most unfair thing is that our very skilled tradespeople aren’t able to work on these projects,” she says. “They’re more than capable of completing them.”

THOSE UNFAIRLY AFFECTED BY THE CBA’s obvious favouritism toward the NDP government’s friends in the BTU are not standing idly by. They are taking action to challenge the government.

A coalition of BC’s largest construction associations, construction workers, and progressive unions—including CLAC—brought a court challenge against the BC government’s CBA. The challenge argues that the CBA violates the rights of BC’s construction workforce to have equal access to work and be represented by the union of their choice, or not be represented by a union at all.

Although the government attempted to have the case thrown out, the BC Supreme Court ruled that the challenge should be allowed to proceed.

The reality is that achieving the government’s social objectives doesn’t require leaving thousands of workers out in the cold and the excessive waste of taxpayer dollars created by this deal with the BTU.

The basic principles of fair and open tendering and maintaining an inclusive approach to building public infrastructure are the best path to ensuring all British Columbians get a fair chance at gaining employment and training.

CLAC is confident that as we move forward with our legal challenge, the courts will decide this case on its merits and uphold the essential rights and freedoms of Canadians, particularly freedom of association and protection against discrimination.

THE FEELINGS OF EVERY ONE of the CLAC members who went to Victoria to fight against this discriminatory policy was one of outrage. Premier Horgan and his ministers did their best to dodge the very tough questions directed at them.

Local 68 member and steward Taylor Paananen was asked what he wanted to hear from the government in the legislature. Taylor’s reply summed up the mood of crowd brilliantly: “I know it’s hard when it comes to politics, but the truth would be nice.”

Fighting for Fairness

In Ontario and Manitoba, CLAC’s fight for fairness for its members in accessing work on public infrastructure projects resulted in some positive changes last year.

Fair and Open Tendering Success in Ontario

Last summer, after seven years of intense lobbying by CLAC, the Ontario government passed Bill 66, Restoring Ontario's Competitiveness Act, which resulted in the City of Hamilton, the Region of Waterloo, and Sault Ste. Marie no longer being designated construction employers. This means that these municipalities are now no longer bound to restrictive subcontracting provisions that required workers to be members of the Building Trades Unions (BTU) to work on public infrastructure projects in their regions. As a result, CLAC members and their employers can now bid on police stations, libraries, waste and water treatment plants, and other major projects.

CLAC has been a vocal and active proponent of fair and open tendering and has dedicated much time and resources to changing the law in Ontario. Our efforts included hiring lobbyists, commissioning third-party studies and economic analysis of closed tendering, sourcing high-level constitutional legal opinions, conducting member surveys, writing letters to MPPs, and meeting frequently with politicians and regulators.

Unfortunately, in a last-minute amendment to the law, the province gave the affected municipalities the option to maintain the status quo. The City of Toronto elected to do so, and as a result, it remains bound to nine different BTU construction unions. Public infrastructure projects tendered by Toronto remain unavailable to CLAC members—as has been the case for more than 40 years.

To make matters worse, the city also entered into a voluntary-recognition agreement with the Labourers International Union of North America (LIUNA), increasing the number of unions that Toronto has exclusive deals with from nine to ten. CLAC submitted a clear legal opinion that the city cannot voluntarily offer privilege to one union’s members that it’s not prepared to offer to others. We have filed a lawsuit in Ontario’s Superior Court asking that the decision of Toronto City Council be quashed.

But as a result of Bill 66, CLAC members can now return to work on projects in Hamilton, the Region of Waterloo, and Sault Ste. Marie that they have long been excluded from. While more is yet to be done in Toronto, we can take pride in knowing that our union was instrumental in ending the discriminatory and costly procurement problem of closed tendering in much of the province of Ontario. 

Making Manitoba Fair and Open for Everyone

The Manitoba government introduced legislation in late November 2019 that would give all workers equal opportunity to work on provincially tendered infrastructure projects.

“The Public Sector Construction Projects (Tendering) Act will level the playing field for all bidders and give all companies the same opportunities, regardless of union affiliation,” said Manitoba Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler. “We’re committed to ending the practice that workers need to become union members to work on public infrastructure projects, as we believe it infringes on their rights to determine whether or not they want to be represented by a union.”

This opens the door for Local 152 signatory employers and members to work on projects they previously were shut out of because of their union affiliation. Manitoba project labour agreements (PLAs) required employees to join one of the Building Trades Unions to be eligible to work on public infrastructure projects. Besides infringing on workers’ charter rights to freedom of association, the restricted competition caused by PLAs hindered the government’s ability to get the best value for taxpayers’ money.

“By opening up contracts to greater competition, we expect more competitive pricing and savings for taxpayers,” said Schuler. “Competitive markets allow public-sector entities to obtain the best value for money on their projects, with a larger pool of bidders saving up to 10 percent of project costs.”

The proposed bill includes provincial government departments, Crown corporations, regional health authorities, universities, and school divisions. When they tender bids for construction work, they will now do so in accordance with the bill’s provisions.

The Birdcages

BC’s original legislative buildings in Victoria were known as The Birdcages because of their appearance. Built between 1859 and 1864, they housed the colonial administration and consisted of six wood and brick structures comprising a legislative hall, administrative building, courthouse, treasury, land office, and guard house.

The press at the time described them as “a mixed style of architecture, the latest fashion for Chinese pagoda, Swiss-cottage, and Italian-villa fancy birdcages.” The nickname Birdcages stuck and the buildings were home to BC’s fully elected assembly when it became a province in 1871. But by the early 1890s, the young province had outgrown them, and new parliament buildings were needed.

In 1892, a 25-year-old architect from England, Francis Mawson Rattenbury—who had only been in BC for four months—won the competition to design them.

The Legislative Assembly passed the Parliament Buildings Construction Act, 1893, and set a budget of $600,000—one-third BC’s total budget at the time. The buildings—described as a combination of free classical, renaissance, and Romanesque—were completed in 1898 to rave reviews. The final bill: $923,000—over one-third higher than budgeted. Ouch.

Sources: leg.bc.ca, wikipedia.org

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