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Opposition probes rising costs, union raids for B.C. construction

NDP restricts public works to selected building trades unions
Construction of the Farrell Creek bridge at the Site C dam on the Peace River, March 21, 2022. Site C has been under construction for seven years with union and non-union crews working together. (B.C. Hydro photo)

Opposition MLAs teamed up to defeat the B.C. government’s efforts to allow construction union “raids” every summer when the NDP had a minority three years ago, but they could only question the costs and consequences as the amendments were moved through the B.C. legislature this week.

Prince George-Mackenzie MLA Mike Morris asked why the NDP was so determined to allow construction unions annual raiding rights, after projects like the Port Mann bridge and the Canada Line in Vancouver were built successfully without strict union rules. He connected the effort to the NDP’s restriction of large public construction to 19 favoured unions that have long supported their party.

“Is it to bring more unions into the government-approved union realm?” Morris asked in debate May 5. “Or is it to break the unions that are currently resisting government?”

Shuswap MLA Greg Kyllo, the B.C. Liberal labour critic, described a highway widening project in his constituency that is subject to the NDP’s “community benefits agreement” that forces all workers to join one of 19 mostly U.S.-based unions. The project went $20 million over its $160 million budget, even after the length of the widening was reduced by almost half from the original 6.1 km, he said.

A new hospital for Cowichan Lake was subject to the union restrictions and the provincial agency Infrastructure B.C. found a 23 per cent increase as a result, Kyllo said. Former transportation minister Claire Trevena said the union preference would only add seven per cent to the cost of public construction, with a new B.C. Institute of Technology campus being the latest project subject to it.

Labour Minister Harry Bains re-introduced amendments in April to remove provision for secret ballot votes in union certification, and to allow construction workers to change their union representation once per year instead of waiting for the third year of a union contract. Bains attempted to allow annual union “raids” on other union members in construction projects in 2019, as well as remove the secret ballot vote, but the B.C. Liberal and B.C. Green MLAs teamed up to defeat both measures.

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Bains said in debate this week, as he argued in 2019, that the current law allowing union contracts to operate for three years before members can switch to another union is not compatible with construction, where projects don’t usually last three years.

One of the sites that has seen union raiding attempts is the Site C dam project, which is in its seventh year, the only open-shop dam project ever in B.C. Traditional trade unions, newer unions with less stringent craft lines that are the target of raids, and non-union companies are all working on the dam project near Fort St. John.


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