Fighting for What's Right
/ Author: Donald Mundy
/ Categories: Locals, Local 68, Sectors, Construction /
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Fighting for What's Right

There’s a growing threat to workers’ rights brewing in BC under the guise of community benefits agreements. It’s a threat that could spread to other areas of the country—unless we take action now

By Don Mundy, CLAC Representative

CLAC IS SUING THE BC GOVERNMENT. In a writ submitted to the BC Supreme Court on August 27, 2018, CLAC joined with other groups who share similar concerns in an effort to force the BC government to drop provisions in its new community benefits agreement (CBA) for public infrastructure projects that would restrict workers’ rights and cost taxpayers billions.

The sticking point? The new CBA model requires all workers to join one of 19 designated Building Trades Unions (BTU)—all headquartered in the US. It’s an affront to Canadian workers who cannot work on projects being built using taxes they paid unless they join one of the designated international unions.

“The requirement to belong to a certain union to get work is unconstitutional and goes against the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” says Ryan Bruce, CLAC’s BC manager of government relations. “It goes against all understanding of fairness to the tens of thousands of construction workers who will be cut out of work because of this agreement.

“The new CBA model is nothing short of a kickback scheme for the Building Trades Unions, which have made significant contributions to BC’s New Democratic Party. It’s old-school cronyism at its worst.

“Not only is it a charter issue violating workers’ right to freedom of association, it’s also bad business for the province. The cost overruns on each project built under this antiquated model could reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars.”

How did we get to this point today? More importantly, what can we do to stop this blatant trampling of workers’ rights and waste of taxpayers’ money?

ON JULY 16, 2018, BC Premier John Horgan announced to a crowd gathered at the British Columbia Institute of Technology campus in Burnaby that all future provincial infrastructure projects would be built under a new community benefits agreement. The new model is a revamping of the old fair wage policy agreements used in the province the last time the NDP governed BC back in the 1990s.

The CBA’s goals include a minimum of 25 percent apprentice hours, targets for Indigenous hiring, and priority given to women and to local hires. At the announcement, Horgan took great pains to laud these benefits.

But nowhere in his speech did Horgan mention that all workers under the CBA will be required to join and pay dues to one of the Building Trades Unions within 30 days of hire.

“No one has an issue with the apprenticeship targets and hiring Indigenous people, women, and local hires,” says Kevin Kohut, CLAC BC director. “These are great goals and good for the province. What we have an issue with is the absolutely needless requirement for workers to join the Building Trades Unions. You can accomplish all the other stuff without forcing people to join a union they don’t want to join.”

The government created a new crown corporation called BC Infrastructure Benefits Inc. (BCIB) last summer. It will, in essence, be the employer for all major government building projects going forward.

In August, the BCIB signed a collective agreement with the Allied Infrastructure and Related Construction Council, which is comprised of 19 Building Trades Unions. These unions and their signatory contractors and members will be the ones exclusively benefiting from the agreement—at the expense of all other union and nonunion construction companies and workers in the province.

Keri Miller, the Progressive Contractors Association’s vice-president of member services, is one of the few people who have gone through the collective agreement with a fine-tooth comb.

“The agreement signed between the BCIB and the council is 336 pages long,” says Miller. “Nowhere is there any mention of specific targets on hiring Indigenous people or women or local workers. But there are pages and pages of specific detail on how to remit union dues to the Building Trades Unions.

“The government can talk all it wants about the benefits these projects will bring to communities, but it’s clear to me this is a smokescreen. What this is really about is lining the pockets of the BTU. It’s payback time for their support of the NDP.

“What’s just as troubling to me is the fact that this agreement was not properly ratified by any union members. This was a closed-door deal. The BC Labour Relations Board has specific criteria that have to be met for there to be a properly certified collective agreement in place, such as a secret-ballot vote. Quite clearly that criteria has not been met in this instance. Is this agreement even valid?”

IF IMPLEMENTED, THE NEW CBA model would leave the vast majority of construction workers in the province on the outside looking in. Including thousands of CLAC members.

“We’ve seen this play before,” says Forrest Berry, a heavy equipment operator and long-time CLAC member. “Back in the ’90s, the only people who got work on the big projects were those who had friends in the IOUE 115 [International Union of Operating Engineers Local 115]. It was extremely frustrating.

“These are big international unions that are in bed with the government. Part of the union dues paid by their members goes down to the US parent unions. Back in the day, those international unions were bringing in people from all over North America to work on our projects. Will they be allowed to do the same thing again?”

Tom MacDonald, another long-time member and CLAC Local 68 president, also remembers what it was like.

“Even if the company I’m with wins a bid for a project, I may not get to work on it because they have to hire through the union’s hiring hall,” he says. “I might be sitting at home watching some junior guy from the other union taking my job. How is that fair?”

The agreement to have all hiring go through the Building Trades Unions couldn’t come at a better time for them. Statistics don’t favour the BTU. In the last 30 years, the BTU has seen its share of construction work in the province fall significantly. Presently, out of the over 250,000 construction workers in BC, BTU members make up only 15 percent of the total. Workers in alternative unions, such as CLAC, and nonunion workers do the vast majority of construction work in the province.

In his July speech, Horgan said that the first two infrastructure projects to be built using the new CBA model would be the $1.4 billion Pattullo Bridge replacement and the $650 million Hwy 1 upgrade between Kamloops and the Alberta border. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Estimates range that up to $50 billion will be spent by the provincial government in the next five years on infrastructure.

“It’s outrageous that our members won’t get a crack at that work,” says Kohut. “That’s why we’ve partnered with other organizations to sue the government and force them to open up the bidding process to all hard-working British Columbians.”

Along with CLAC, the group suing the government includes the Progressive Contractors Association, the Independent Contractors and Business Associations, the BC Chamber of Commerce, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Canada West Construction Union, and others.

“What’s ironic about the CBA is that everyone is in agreement with what the government is trying to do with hiring more Indigenous people, women, and local hires,” says Kohut. “But they can do that without requiring workers to join one of the Building Trade Unions. It’s absolutely unnecessary and infringes on their right to join the union of their choice, or to not join a union if they so choose.”

WORKERS AREN’T THE ONLY ONES who will lose out under the new monopoly deal between the NDP government and its allies in the BTU. So will taxpayers.

Costs will increase significantly for projects that fall under the CBA model. While the government estimates the Pattullo Bridge project will be 7 percent (or $100 million) over budget, research indicates that restricted tendering on these projects would add 20-30 percent to the cost. This could mean a cost overrun of between $280-360 million for the new bridge.

A BDO Dunwoody study estimated that the additional cost of the Island Highway project, built in the 1990s under the previous NDP government’s fair wage policy agreement, added $70 million or 38 percent to the original cost. Even to achieve that cost overrun, the project had to be significantly altered from the proposed full overpasses to signal light interchanges.

Much of the additional cost occurs because of jurisdictional disputes between the many unions working on each project, which leads to decreased productivity. Each of the respective member unions in the BTU claim that certain work belongs to their members, leading to inevitable disputes as to who does what.

“We are watching this very closely from a national perspective,” says Wayne Prins, CLAC executive director. “This isn’t just a British Columbia issue. The heads of the Building Trades Unions were all in Ottawa in the middle of October lobbying the government to grant them exclusive access to work. We know they lobbied for a greater share of work on the Trans Mountain Pipeline Project after the federal government bought it from Kinder Morgan.

“In Alberta, Premier Rachel Notley is toying with the idea of using a similar model. We have to respond to make sure our members and our signatory contractors get equal access to work, not only here in BC, but across the country.”

The Progressive Contractors Association (PCA), whose member companies employ more than 25,000 skilled construction workers across Canada, is fighting alongside CLAC to stop community benefits agreements that restrict who can work on public projects.

“We are partnering with CLAC and with other organizations and starting a grassroots movement of concerned Canadians to speak out against the new CBA model,” says Mike Martens, director of public affairs with PCA. “There are three things we would like concerned people to do. First, if you live in BC, write a letter to your MLA letting him or her know that you strongly disapprove of the new restrictive CBA model. If local politicians are inundated with letters, they will have to pay attention to what’s going on.

“Second, talk about this issue on social media. Spread the word to your friends and family and have them write their MLA too. We need everyone to realize that their rights and their opportunity to work are being taken away.

“Third, if you have worked in the construction industry and have first-hand experience with this type of restrictive model, we want to hear from you and share your stories. We’ve developed a website [moneywellwasted.ca] where you can read these stories and learn how to help. We’ve also developed a ready-to-go form letter that will automatically be sent to Premier Horgan and your local MLA.”

Under the guise of a new community benefits agreements model, Premier Horgan is giving his union friends and supporters in the BTU a monopoly on work on BC infrastructure projects. This model needs to be stopped in BC before it spreads and restricts the rights of construction workers across Canada and wastes untold billions of taxpayer dollars.

"Those Turkeys"

Twenty CLAC Local 68 members descended on the BC Legislature on October 30 to hold the NDP’s feet to the fire over restrictive BTU-only hiring clauses in its community benefits agreement (CBA). They joined with members and representatives of other organizations that are also being shut out of future provincial infrastructure projects.

During a rowdy session of the legislature, one member of the opposition Liberal Party confronted Premier John Horgan over a comment he recently made referring to CLAC as “those turkeys.” No response was made by the premier.

Four other Liberal members confronted NDP Minister of Transportation, Claire Trevena, with the same question: “Why are you forcing a construction worker to join a union they don’t want to join?” The minister eventually became flustered with the constant barrage. But one thing became clear: she had no good rationale to defend the government’s position. She did agree to meet with some CLAC Local 68 members in her office after the session, including Tom MacDonald, Natalie Bak, Carmen Elebracht, Tim Spencer, and Ryan Deforge. Members educated the minister on the fact that other organizations besides the BTU have apprentices and hire underrepresented groups in construction. CLAC has requested further dialogue with the government in the hope that it will do the right thing and eliminate restrictive union language in the CBA and allow its members to work on infrastructure projects.

A Bridge Far Too Costly

The Pattullo Bridge is one of the oldest bridges in BC’s Lower Mainland. Built by the Dominion Bridge Company, it opened in 1937 at a cost of $4 million. Motorists paid a toll of 25 cents per crossing until 1952 to help pay the cost of construction.

The four-lane, 1,227-metre-long bridge has no centre barrier, making it particularly prone to head-on collisions. Excessive speed and bad weather have led to numerous fatal collisions over the years.

Construction of a new bridge to replace it is scheduled to begin in 2019 and will open in 2023. The old bridge’s replacement, even at a cost of $1.377 billion—344 times higher than original bridge’s cost—couldn’t come soon enough. The loss of lives has been far too costly.

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