BC government ties public infrastructure project to unions

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bc union story

The BC government has introduced new rules — and a new crown corporation — to require union labour on the province’s public-sector infrastructure projects.

In a news release, the government says the system will “deliver good-paying jobs, better training and apprenticeships, and more trades opportunities for Indigenous peoples, women and youth around the province.”

The first projects to be delivered under the new community benefits framework are the new Pattullo Bridge, and the four-laning projects on the Trans-Canada Highway between Kamloops and Alberta. The request for qualifications (RFQ) for the Pattullo Bridge Replacement Project has been released.

“British Columbians rightfully expect B.C. projects to benefit B.C. workers, families and
communities,” Premier John Hogan said in a statement. “Our new Community Benefits Agreement will help deliver those benefits.”

“With this agreement, we’re not just investing in roads, bridges and other infrastructure, we’re investing in good jobs and new opportunities for people who live in B.C. And with our focus on expanding apprenticeships for young British Columbians, we’re helping build B.C.’s next generation of construction workers.”

Not surprisingly, opponents to the idea believe the new requirements will drive up costs.

The government says in a statement that highlights of the agreement include:

  • A targeted approach to maximizing apprenticeship opportunities on major public infrastructure projects.
  • Focus on priority hiring and training of Indigenous peoples, and women.
  • Co-ordinated access to existing training programs, while identifying and addressing skills
    gaps.
  • Priority hiring for qualified individuals who live within close proximity of the projects.
  • Hiring flexibility for contractors, who can request named hires.
  • Wage alignment to prevailing industry rates to promote good wages for all employees.

“British Columbians deserve the opportunity to work on major government projects being built in and near their communities,” said Claire Trevena, Minister of Transportation and
Infrastructure. “This Community Benefits Agreement will put local people first in line for good jobs building the roads, bridges and other infrastructure we need.”

Under government’s new Community Benefits Agreement, a diverse and qualified workforce will be supplied for select major public infrastructure projects through a newly created Crown corporation, BC Infrastructure Benefits Inc. (BCIB). BCIB will hire the project’s construction workers, and will work with unions and contractors to dispatch labour, as well as manage payroll and benefits.

Signatories to the Community Benefits Agreement are BCIB, and the Allied Infrastructure and Related Construction Council (AIRCC), which represents many of B.C.’s building trades.

Contractors representing B.C.’s construction industry played an important advisory role as the agreement was developed, the government says, but this view is not shared by the non-union sector.

Chris Gardner, president of the non-union Independent Contractors and Businesses Association, says the “rebranding” of union project labour agreements won’t make them work better.

“They require union memberships for non-union workers, antiquated union-hall hiring, and they deliver windfalls to the favoured unions involved,” Gardner said.

He notes that since 1981, the traditional trade union share of B.C. construction work has fallen from 90 per cent to 15 per cent.

Critics of the union-only approach point to the Island Highway project, a series of upgrades to the Trans-Canada Highway between Victoria and Campbell River in the 1990s. The project was completed after a series of cost overruns and reduction in scope, including replacement of interchanges with traffic lights.

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