Given the audience this announcement appears to indicate a willingness to mirror the commitment the BC government recently made to the Building Trades Unions (BTU) which essentially provides these unions exclusive rights to benefit from all construction work on publicly funded infrastructure projects.
We have previously commented on the agreement struck between the BC government and the Allied Infrastructure and Related Construction Council (AIRCC). It merits repeating some of our observations in the context of the promise the Alberta government has just made.
Over the past 20 years in Alberta, much attention has been focused on the construction activities in the oil patch where mega-projects costing in the many billions of dollars have naturally attracted and deserved a lot of attention. Given the size and scope of these mega-projects they have been important platforms for innovative approaches to labour relations.
In the now distant past, the building trade unions dominated the construction work in Alberta. However, due to wildcat strikes, other labour disruptions and declining productivity project owners (many of whom are members of COAA – Construction Owners Association of Alberta) became dissatisfied with contractor performance and sought alternatives. This allowed the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) to get a foothold by providing an alternative construction labour approach. CLAC has grown their market share to over 65% of all construction work in the oil patch in Alberta today.
CLAC and other alternative unions have helped Alberta become a more competitive market for construction services and has allowed for greater participation by other contractors not signatory to the BTU. It is important to note that this new more open and competitive marketplace includes contractors who have bargaining relationships with Unifor and other alternative unions as well as non-union “open shops”. The shift in this market has also forced the BTU to be more competitive and to be responsive to the needs of the project owners, workers of all types and the communities at large.
We would agree with both BC and AB that there is still much work to do to attract and encourage more people to train and look into careers in the construction industry including members of indigenous communities. However, granting exclusivity to one union group’s collective agreements and model of supplying labour over others is counter-intuitive and counter-productive. This will prove especially backward when we have a labour shortages! There are other more open ways to achieve the desired results of inclusion in training and participation in large infrastructure projects. These better ways will arguably ensure benefits from publicly funded infrastructure projects accrue to the people in the local communities and the people of Canada.
The concept of Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs) emerged in certain jurisdictions in the US as a strategic tool used to build community wealth. CBAs are negotiated agreements between a private or public development (project owner) and a coalition of community-based groups. This coalition may include neighbourhood representatives, single-issue advocates, labour unions, social service agencies, religious congregations and faith-based groups and others. Together, they give a voice to people in infrastructure planning and land development processes – especially those individuals who have been historically excluded or marginalized from these processes and decisions that affect them.
From a government policy point of view, one might easily conclude that this is precisely what provincial governments should be doing in order to ensure that public funds are being used to the best advantage of the constituents who are most directly impacted. It’s an idea we support and believe is vitally important. All industrial relationships matter and should be given a voice and ability to influence and participate. The provincial government could create such a model for their infrastructure projects and eventually encourage project owners in the private sector to enter into the same kind of agreements.
Our central issue with the BC Community Benefit Agreement is the fundamental flaw that there is not full community benefit. In fact, they created a sweeping All Government Infrastructure Projects Labour Agreement that provides the Building Trade Unions an exclusive benefit. We only need to look at Manitoba Hydro’s experience with the Burntwood-Nelson Agreement to understand why this approach does not work.
Think about it. If you were a non-union construction contractor would you want to bid on the work? Would your current non-union employees want to be forced to comply with BTU work jurisdiction rules? Would your supervisors know or want to manage construction in a manner that is counter to your multi-skilled, mixed crew model? As the owner of this non-union construction company, would you want your company to become a target for union organizing once you work on this project? The answer to all these questions is likely “No”. This BC agreement is a deterrent to participation by open shop contractors and those signatory to unions other than the BTU. This defeats the very purpose of the “C” in CBA – it fails to incorporate the whole construction contractor community and by extension all of its employees and workers who have chosen this community to affiliate with; and across Canada this excluded group represents the vast majority of people in the construction industry.
How specifically did BC do this? By insisting that all workers be managed through the newly created Crown corporation, BC Infrastructure Benefits Inc. and by having this crown corporation sign an agreement to work exclusively with the BTUs. This exclusive BTU Labour Agreement provides the Building Trade Unions with these benefits:
|Point – Benefits to the BTU||Counter Point|
|All workers must pay dues to the BTU (or the contractor will pay on their behalf);||• Employees are not paying into their union of choice.
• Workers could end up paying double dues.
• Non Union workers are forced to pay dues to a union in order to work.
• Project costs go up.
|Each manhour worked requires the payment of training fees to the BTU;
BTU will provide skills training at union training centres.
|• Colleges and publicly funded institutions conduct most trade classroom training today.
• Other unions also have established training centres
• Any journey person / red seal qualified tradesperson can supervise apprentices in a non-union or alternative union environment. Apprentices earn qualifying hours in all environments.
|All workers must be deployed through the appropriate hiring hall under the rules established in the Community Benefit Agreement.||• This adds a new and additional layer to the BTU hiring hall system.
• Local communities often have skills databases available for contractors.
• Indigenous peoples across Canada have been given funding opportunities to create and manage these databases.
• Project Owner could achieve strong local participation by requiring use of these existing databases and require that local workers are given First in – Last out priority hiring.
|All workers will have to work under the BTU collective agreements (CAs) (including wages and jurisdictional work rules).||• All workers, regardless of their current union status and personal choice are forced under these CAs in order to gain work.
• Multi-skilled, mixed trade work crews are efficient and effective alternative to the BTU model and collective agreements.
The BC government has essentially forced individuals to work with Building Trade Unions despite the fact that many of them have chosen, as is their constitutional right, not to join those unions or in many cases any union. It forces non-union and alternative union construction contractors to seriously question their willingness to work on these projects due to the BTU work environment. This naturally dampens competition, limits supply of workers and can drive project costs up.
Our advice to Alberta is not to make the same mistake. By entering into Community Benefit Agreements that include other interest groups in the province including CLAC and the Progressive Contractors Association, the Merit Contractors of Alberta (representing non-union contractors), representatives from the indigenous communities and local municipal interests, to name a few. By having an inclusive and open forum and reaching an agreement that considers all interests, the province would be doing something innovative and important; something different than BC; something new and democratic. This would continue in the Alberta tradition of progressive labour relations.
A more open competitive model is fairer. It respects everyone’s constitutional rights. Moreover, by maintaining a competitive environment an open approach will help manage project costs and reduce the taxpayers’ burden in funding the badly needed updating of Canada’s aging infrastructure.
Our point is simple – do not use Community Benefit Agreements as a vehicle to serve the interests of one group to the exclusion of others as it appears BC has done and as some fear Alberta may now also do. This topic deserves much more discussion with all impacted stakeholders.