On-Site Magazine

Challenge to B.C. union rules for major infrastructure projects heads to province’s supreme court

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February 28, 2019 by David Kennedy

Premier Horgan and Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Trevena launched the new labour rules last year. PHOTO: Province of B.C.

VANCOUVER—Four construction associations have begun a court battle with the British Columbia government over the Community Benefits Agreement introduced last year for large public infrastructure projects.

The NDP government put the new framework in action this January, starting with the $1.4 billion contract to build the new Pattullo Bridge and a $62.9 million four-laning project along the Trans-Canada Highway in the province’s interior. The $2.8 billion project to build Vancouver’s new Broadway subway extension will also be delivered using the CBA, with others expected to follow.

Among other stipulations, the framework requires workers that have been on an infrastructure job for 30 days or more to join one of 19 unions. Critics, including the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses, have said the CBA essentially creates a monopoly for the province’s Building Trades Unions.

While the procurement process does remain open to both union and non-union contractors, non-union staff would be required to join the appropriate union after the 30-day period.

“Freezing 85 per cent of construction workers out of taxpayer-funded projects is unfair, discriminatory and just plain wrong,” Chris Gardner, president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association (ICBA), said in a statement. “Clearly, the Horgan government will stop at nothing to reward its Building Trades union buddies, even if it means skirting the law.”

The other construction associations joining the ICBA in challenging the framework include the British Columbia Construction Association, the Vancouver Regional Construction Association and the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada. The CFIB and the B.C. Chamber of Commerce are also backing the lawsuit.

Along with arguing the CBA violates the rights of non-union workers, the coalition says the labour rules will cost taxpayers considerably. An assessment released last year by the CFIB, for instance, showed the deal could add between 10 and 20 per cent to the cost of infrastructure projects.

The province has admitted to the higher project costs, but argues the framework’s benefits more than make up for the increased spending.

It points to greater labour stability, improved safety and more apprenticeship and skills training opportunities as several of the key benefits. The government has also said the labour rules will increase opportunities for Indigenous peoples and other groups that are typically underrepresented in the construction workforce.

Legal proceedings began in B.C.’s Supreme Court Feb. 27.