Although there is still much that is unknown about community benefit agreements (CBA), what they specifically entail, and how British Columbia’s NDP government plans to utilize them for public projects, one thing is for sure — they’re coming soon to a town near you.
On March 8, Premier John Horgan announced that the first CBA will be applied to the $1.377-billion Pattullo Bridge replacement.
For most of us, these CBAs appear to be straightforward frameworks aimed at leaving communities better than they were found before a project’s construction. But it seems some interested parties view them as a perfect opportunity to further very specific agendas.
“(CBAs) will build on a collaborative approach that prevailed in B.C.’s public projects before 2001,” said Brian Cochrane of the Building Trades Affiliate, IUOE 115, in his Dec. 14, 2017, letter to Horgan.
So what happened before 2001? These words were a pointed reference to the old-school project labour agreements devised for projects like the Island Highway, where — although open to bidding from independent and non-union contractors — every employee on-site was required to sign Building Trade Union (BTU) membership cards and pay them dues.
Despite the fact that today’s Building Trades membership is only 17 percent of the current construction workforce, Cochrane and his affiliates have been asking the premier for exclusive rights to work.
To date, the NDP haven’t committed to the Island Highway model for all public infrastructure work, guaranteeing their donors portions of the work on the Pattullo Bridge. However, recent trends suggest that the other 83 percent of BC’s construction workers have significant cause to be concerned, as the government has already committed to an exclusively BTU model for future BC Hydro projects.
What is the estimated project value of this promise? Perhaps more than $10 billion. That’s not a bad rate of return for the BTU’s investments in the NDP election campaign.
British Columbians should be wary of any effort to allow a select few unions to determine who has the right to access work on public projects. The goal of the government should be to maximize opportunities for all of BC’s workers.
Therein lies the potential of CBAs. They should be modern, progressive and inclusive, and shouldn’t be monopolistic, closed-shop regurgitations of old-era project labour agreements. No worker should be prevented from having a fair chance at employment on public projects.
Those PLAs may have worked for W.A.C. Bennett, and they may work for Horgan, but they don’t work for the majority of British Columbians, to whom his party is, and should be, accountable.
Not only should CBAs be relevant in their approach and open to all contractors and unions, they should be designed to encourage the development of truly progressive workplace cultures — not merely encouraging project hiring quota compliance. They should aim for long-term employment outcomes for traditionally under-represented groups, such as Indigenous groups.
They need to give back to — and recruit from — the community. We believe in community benefit agreements, because they, at their core, are about leaving the community better than you found it. We can and will achieve these goals through our CBAs — provided representatives from independent unions, non-union contractors, local communities, Indigenous groups, and Building Trades unions are included in the process of establishing them.
But what doesn’t benefit the community is closing the doors for the vast majority of the construction workforce in B.C.
This article was originally published in the Vancouver Sun.