Controversy fuels competing announcements about BC Project Labour/Community Benefits Agreements

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Image from the BC Government's news release announcing the Community Benefits Agreement (Project Labor Agreement) framework

Depending on your perspective, BC government’s support for Project Labour Agreements (or Community Benefits Agreements) will protect the wages, benefits and working conditions for construction workers on a some major construction projects, or deny opportunity and restrict competition.

PLA opponents have formed a coalition to oppose the system, asserting that the agreements will cost cost taxpayers millions of dollars, and undermine opportunities for youth, women and Indigenous workers entering the industry.

Under the government’s PLA model, workers on the Pattullo Bridge replacement and Highway 1 (Interior) expansion project will be forced to join the government-approved Building Trades Union through BC Infrastructure Benefits Inc., operate out of a hiring hall, and be subject to the exclusive rules of the Building Trades Union, the anti-PLA organization asserts.

“Within 30 days of employment on the job site, any non-union worker or a worker from another affiliation will be required to join the union for work specific to the project,” the B.C. government said in an earlier statement.

“Community benefit agreements ensure projects will be on time, on budget, fair wages are paid to everyone and importantly that legacy of new workers for the future,” said premier John Horgan.

Organized labor represented by the BC Building Trades and the provincial government say they believe the system will help solve the province’s skilled trades shortage and give women and Aboriginal peoples more opportunities to enter construction.

However independent non-union contractors, who say they represent more than 85 per cent of the industry workforce, said those justifications are just a smokescreen for a return to union-only sites, labour halls and favouritism for building trades that will cause projects to be more expensive and cumbersome.

Four construction associations and two non-conventional unions have joined with the B.C. Chamber of Commerce, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and several construction companies and professionals to launch a court action to halt the PLAs.

“VRCA is a champion of fair, open and transparent procurement practices,” Vancouver Regional Construction Association (VCRA) president Fiona Famulak said in a statement. “The PLA is an affront to these principles – not only was it negotiated without full industry consultation, it is prescriptive, and there’s a concerning lack of clarity surrounding its operational roll-out that will force both our open-shop and unionized member companies to bid without a complete understanding of project risk. This will drive up the cost of construction that will ultimately be funded by B.C.’s taxpayers. Simply put, this PLA does not serve our member companies, their skilled tradespeople, or B.C.’s taxpayers.”

“BCCA supports all construction employers and workers, regardless of labour affiliation. When we speak on an issue, we do it based on facts and for the good of the industry,” said B.C. Construction Association president Chris Atchison. “When government makes ideological decisions, B.C. loses. The PLA is a partisan policy that contravenes worker’s rights to freedom of assembly, adds bureaucracy to projects, increases risk, and creates obstacles to workforce development.”

“The only thing guaranteed about the NDP’s new PLA is the monopoly the Building Trades Union will gain by signing it,” said CLAC provincial director Kevin Kohut, a union which represents thousands of B.C. construction workers. “The lack of stated goals focused on women, Indigenous people and local hires – including any means to measure success – is proof of that. It is absurd to believe that signing a deal that limits participation to 15 per cent of the workforce will result in greater inclusion.”

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