Before the surprise 2020 election, B.C. Premier John Horgan made a point of saying his government’s union-only public construction mandate had been applied only to three large infrastructure projects.
The first project under the new “community benefits agreement,” widening a section of the Trans-Canada Highway near Revelstoke, saw the cost jump 35 per cent. A section of the widening east of Kamloops was then scaled back by half, with the transportation ministry in both cases citing a “hot market” for construction as part of the pressure on costs.
Then-minister Claire Trevena’s estimate for the second designated project, the Pattullo bridge replacement, was pushed up seven per cent by the deal forcing employees to join one of 19 mostly U.S.-based unions, and imposing their rigid “craft lines” on work crews.
The third project is the Broadway subway extension in Vancouver, a tunnel project open to a few specialized international companies. It was awarded last fall to Spanish infrastructure company Acciona in partnership with Ghella of Italy. Horgan says the province is about to release a business case for the long-awaited Massey tunnel replacement, which would likely be the next project to use the new rules.
The B.C. NDP’s master union agreement runs to 336 pages, with a new B.C. Crown corporation set up to control payroll and union dues, diverting an additional 25 cents per person-hour worked to a new union council and another seven cents to building trade union funds for health and safety. Horgan’s mandate letter to new Transportation Minister Rob Fleming instructs him to continue to apply it “where appropriate,” and to “streamline consultation, tendering and construction of infrastructure projects.”
Mandate letters to Labour Minister Harry Bains and Advanced Education Minister Ann Kang instruct them to “restore the compulsory trades system to improve safety and give more workers a path to apprenticeship completion.” This was a 2017 recommendation from the B.C. Federation of Labour, along with moving to a $15 minimum wage, which B.C. is due to surpass with $15.20 per hour in June of 2021.
In a year-end interview with Black Press, Horgan said the public supports his labour agenda.
“They want to know when we’re spending public dollars that we’re training the next generation of workers,” Horgan said. “We have an aging demographic. We want to encourage people to get into the trades. One way to do that is to give them a clear path to apprenticeships to red seals, and whether you’re a union company or a non-union company, you need to have skilled workers, and community benefit agreements allow us to do that.”
Another likely shift in 2021 is the elimination of secret-ballot votes for union certification. Bains was poised to impose that in 2019, going against the recommendation of his own expert panel, but withdrew the amendment to the B.C. Labour Relations Code after then-B.C. Greens leader Andrew Weaver said his party would vote against it and defeat it in the minority legislature.
Horgan’s mandate letter to Bains instructs him only to “ensure every worker has the right to join a union and bargain for fair working conditions.”