B.C.’s construction industry is now overwhelmingly non-union and open-shop. (Tom Fletcher/Black Press)

B.C. VIEWS: NDP’s construction rebuild showing some big cracks

Highway cost overruns have just begun under U.S. union deal

The first highway construction job under the B.C. NDP government’s Orwellian “community benefits agreement” has been awarded, and it is one whopping steak-and-six-salads lunch for the U.S.-based unions so revered by Premier John Horgan.

For a mere two kilometres of four-laning the Trans Canada Highway near Revelstoke, the cost soared 35 per cent in three months. That’s a jump of more than $22 million above a budget of $63 million that was announced when bids were invited in February.

The NDP government slipped this past the Vancouver media, burying it in a news release put out just before the May long weekend. It was immediately brought to my attention by a representative of the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC), the primary target of the Horgan government’s pact with the B.C. and Yukon Building Trades Council.

These guys go by such up-to-date names as the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Shipbuilders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers Lodge 359. There are 19 of them, anointed by the Horgan government as fit for taxpayer-funded construction, starting with the Pattullo Bridge replacement, the Broadway subway and a half dozen sections of the Trans Canada Highway between Kamloops and the Alberta border.

Also chosen is “Move Up,” formerly COPE 378, the B.C. Hydro office union and a key supplier of staff to the premier’s office.

Their monopoly on public construction is filled and chilled like the salad table required on a highway job. But they had a bitter setback last week when the B.C. Green Party rose up to defeat a key part of the NDP’s labour code revisions, the one that allowed construction union raids every summer.

Labour Minister Harry Bains adopted stabilizing rules that allow raids only after a union contract has been in place for three years. Except for construction.

Horgan attended a B.C. Building Trades convention in Victoria last year, and it was like a religious rally. He and executive director Tom Sigurdson congratulated each other for the huge benefit their monopoly would have for apprentices.

That fiction was shredded last week by the Independent Contractors and Business Association (ICBA), which compiled the B.C. government’s own statistics on apprenticeships. A lot has changed since the Hyundai-Kerkhoff consortium built the Alex Fraser Bridge in the 1980s, the first non-union heavy construction in B.C. CLAC workers and affiliated contractors have since worked on the new Port Mann Bridge and are gearing up for pipeline work.

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RELATED: Cost jumps 35% on Trans Canada Highway widening job

The B.C. government’s Industry Training Authority reports that of the 28,432 registered construction apprentices in B.C., 23,172 are sponsored by open-shop companies, not unions. That’s three out of four.

ICBA president Chris Gardner notes that in some trades, the ratio is even higher. Apprentice welders are 96 per cent open-shop, plumbers 87 per cent, carpenters 85 per cent, electricians 83 per cent.

“Over the past 35 years, the building trades unions have lost market share, lost any wage and benefit advantage they used to have, and alienated generations of B.C. construction workers,” Gardner said.

One of those disaffected construction workers is carpenter Zig van Akker, who worked on the Island Highway project in the 1990s, the last NDP-building trades road job. He remembers the strict craft lines and having to sue a union pension fund.

Commuters on that highway are being held up these days by overpass construction north of Victoria. It’s finally being built after 1990s union featherbedding caused it to be downgraded to a traffic light.

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


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