Construction workers at a high-rise condo site. (Tom Fletcher/Black Press)

Construction workers at a high-rise condo site. (Tom Fletcher/Black Press)

B.C. VIEWS: Unions regain control of public construction

B.C.’s 40-year battle swings back to international big labour

Premier John Horgan has followed through on his March promise to return B.C.’s major public infrastructure projects to a “closed shop” for selected international trade unions, many of which are headquartered in the U.S.

This old-is-new policy applies first to the replacement of the Pattullo Bridge between New Westminster and Surrey, and then to widening the Trans-Canada Highway from Kamloops to the Alberta border.

This is the latest move in a labour power struggle has been raging for most of my adult life, notably with the showdown over Expo 86 construction and bringing in Hyundai Corp. to pair with a non-union contractor to build the Alex Fraser Bridge.

Christy Clark picked up the torch lit by then-premier Bill Bennett in the 1980s, pushing through the Site C project as the first B.C. Hydro dam to be built as an open-shop site. This was much to the dismay of the B.C. and Yukon Building Trades Council, a group restricted to branch offices of international unions, which signed on reluctantly to share the Site C work site with non-union companies and non-affiliated unions that it views with contempt.

Horgan has now proclaimed the return of the “project labour agreement” for public construction, in which the old-school unions agree not to strike in exchange for a monopoly on the site. (How old-school? They have names like International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Shipbuilders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers Lodge 359.)

As B.C. Building Trades executive director Tom Sigurdson explained to me, non-union companies can still bid, as long as they pay wages and benefits determined by the old-school unions. Their “non-working foremen” and a quota of their non-union tradesmen are allowed on site, but anyone who picks up a tool is required to join the designated union within 30 days.

RELATED NEWS: Non-union builders protest exclusion

Benefits will keep some non-union contractors out. They include union-controlled defined-benefit pension plans. The ones who do get in have their most skilled employees forced into the union, at least for the duration of the job.

Things have changed since I worked as a pipelayer for a non-union water and sewer contractor in northern B.C. the early 1980s. My wage of $10.50 an hour, time and a half for overtime, was decent money back then, but I looked with envy at the much higher wages and perks of my friends who got on with provincial highway jobs.

I was disturbed to learn that one way to get these privileged jobs was to locate a certain union business agent, slip him an envelope with $500 cash inside, and get “name requested” to jump over those with greater seniority waiting on the union hall list.

I’m not suggesting that this still goes on today, but this is among the risks of monopoly control of labour. This is what Bennett was battling against back then and the same unions are regaining control today.

The wage gap today is not as big. Skilled carpenters, electricians and other trades are in high demand whether they work union, non-union or run their own show, and a whole lot of them are nearing retirement age.

One of Gordon Campbell’s moves was to pry control over apprenticeships away from the big unions. He set up the Industry Training Authority to co-ordinate the school and on-the-job parts of apprenticeships.

Under Horgan’s rules, that’s quietly being revised as well. The ITA carries on, with some new board members appointed in May. Two of them come from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and two more are officials of post-secondary faculty unions.

Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca


@tomfletcherbc
tfletcher@blackpress.ca

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

BC legislature

Just Posted

Councillor Doug Elford. (File photo: Amy Reid)
Elford to join Surrey Homelessness and Housing Society as a director

Fellow Safe Surrey Coalition Councillors Laurie Guerra, Mandeep Nagra and Allison Patton will be re-appointed to the board

(Photo: Tom Zytaruk)
Surrey council moves to reduce parking along rapid transit corridors

This also targets rental housing developments in Rapid Transit Areas

Big Splash water park is located in Tsawwassen. (submitted photo)
Big Splash reopens Canada Day with changes to keep the water park ‘safe for everyone’

Executive Hotels & Resorts has owned and operated the attraction since 2017

A cyclist stops traffic to allow a gaggle of geese cross the road. (Tino Fluckiger photo)
White Rock man asks motorists to be mindful of wildlife after close call

Impatient motorists drives into oncoming traffic

Elgin Park Secondary students rally for climate change outside of their South Surrey in 2019. (Nick Greenizan photo)
City of Surrey set to host online climate-action panel

June 23 Zoom event to include speakers, question-and-answer period

Maxwell Johnson is seen in Bella Bella, B.C., in an undated photo. The Indigenous man from British Columbia has filed complaints with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal and the Canadian Human Rights Commission after he and his granddaughter were handcuffed when they tried to open a bank account. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Heiltsuk Nation, Damien Gillis, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
VIDEO: Chiefs join human rights case of Indigenous man handcuffed by police in B.C. bank

Maxwell Johnson said he wants change, not just words, from Vancouver police

Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Chief Rosanne Casimir stands outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School after speaking to reporters, in Kamloops, B.C., on Friday, June 4, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Kamloops chief says more unmarked graves will be found across Canada

Chief Rosanne Casimir told a virtual news conference the nation expects to release a report at the end of June

A woman wears a vaccinated sticker after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. ranks among highest in world in COVID-19 first-dose shots: health officials

More than 76% of eligible people have received their 1st shot

A screenshot of the First Peoples Cultural Councils First Peoples’ Map. (First Peoples Cultural Council)
Online resource blends B.C.-Alberta’s Indigenous languages, art and culture

Advisor says initiative supports the urgent need to preserve Indigenous languages

An artists conception of the new terminal building at the Pitt Meadows Regional Airport.
Air travel taking off in B.C., but lack of traffic controllers a sky-high concern

There will be demand for more air traffic controllers: Miller

Canadian Armed Forces experts are on their way to North Vancouver after a local homeowner expressed worry about a military artifact he recently purchased. (Twitter DNV Fire and Rescue)
Military called in to deal with antique ‘shell’ at North Vancouver home

‘The person somehow purchased a bombshell innocently believing it was an out-of-commission military artifact’

Amy Kobelt and Tony Cruz have set their wedding date for February, hoping that more COVID-19 restrictions will have lifted. (The Macleans)
B.C. couples ‘gambling’ on whether COVID rules will let them dance at their wedding

Amy Kobelt and Tony Cruz pushed back their wedding in hopes of being able to celebrate it without the constraints of COVID-19

A plane is silhouetted as it takes off from Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C., May 13, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Report calls for airlines to refund passengers for flights halted due to COVID-19

Conclusion: federal help should be on the condition airlines immediately refund Canadian travellers

Green party Leader Annamie Paul speaks during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 15, 2021. Paul has survived another day of party strife after a planned ouster shifted course, leaving her with a tenuous grip on power ahead of a likely federal election this year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Green Leader Annamie Paul blasts ‘racist,’ ‘sexist’ party execs who sought ouster

Fallout has continued, with two of the federal council’s members resigning

Most Read