By M. Malatesta

Construction workers and many local communities are looking with hope to the B.C. government’s new Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) program for long-term improvements in the economy and work opportunities.

As public construction projects move into high gear, Lee Loftus, outgoing BC Insulators Local 118 business manager, said he’s one of many trade unionists, labour and human rights advocates and consumer groups who have welcomed the new policy as a way of addressing long-standing problems with the construction sector in B.C.

Loftus, who worked on developing such agreements in the 1990s, said the new initiative is similar to the agreements brought in by a former NDP government. They also gave priority to local hire, union-scale pay, local contractors and B.C. suppliers, more apprenticeships and training and more construction career opportunities for people traditionally excluded from the
construction sector (such as Indigenous people and women). In addition, they encouraged full unionization, which gives workers more say in their working conditions and the projects they work on. These types of agreements have proven successful since the 1960s when they were used on public dam construction.

Loftus said, “I helped develop both PLAs (project labour agreements) and CBAs and worked under them, like the Allied Hydro Council and Maintenance agreements, since the 1970s. It was WAC Bennett’s way of securing economic and financial stability in construction, and it paid off for the province.”

The malicious efforts by the former Bill Bennett, Bill Vander Zalm and Gordon Campbell Liberal regimes to scrap CBAs and PLAs resulted in regulatory changes that benefited non-union Alberta contractors and reduced consumer accountability. However, most of B.C.’s public infrastructure since World War II has been built by union labour and B.C.-based contractors to the benefit of not only workers and tradespeople but local communities and consumers as well.

After the 2001 election, “one of the first orders that the Campbell Liberals brought in was to scrap labour agreements similar to CBAs in favour of low-bid at any cost,” Loftus said, adding that Building Trades workers, who make up over 58 per cent of the non-residential construction workforce, have been largely shut out of construction projects under the Liberal regimes. “And you can see the difference.”

Loftus compared CBA-type projects like SkyTrain line construction in the late 1990s to the 2010 Winter Olympics facilities construction.

“Projects like the Millennium Line were based on work tendered through the B.C. government and set requirements for wages, conditions, local hiring, local contractors, apprentices and equity hire. Up to 30 per cent of the workers came from non-traditional communities and most of them stayed in the trades. It’s become more than a job for them,” Loftus said. “It’s a career.”

“For the (2010) Olympics, Kiewit got most of the contracts and brought in equipment and much of the labour from out of the province. Most local communities and non-traditional  sectors of the population were shut out.”

The first major projects that will be undertaken under the new CBA model are the replacement of the Pattullo Bridge between Surrey and New Westminster, expansion of Highway 1 between Kamloops and the B.C. – Alberta border and Broadway Subway.

As expected, lobby groups for various corporate elites and anti-union contractor and development organizations are opposing the CBA model, claiming it will raise costs by narrowing the number of contractors eligible to bid on jobs. There is no credible evidence that this has been the case. They are also upset that the requirements of union-scale wages and established apprenticeship levels make nonunion contractors uncompetitive against their unionized counterparts.

But the government says differently. Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Claire Trevena said it’s true the agreement could result in “slightly escalated” costs for taxpayers. But she said those costs are “far outweighed by benefits provided to British Columbia.

“Agreements like the CBA have a proven track record in both the private and public sector. They promote the delivery of projects on time and on budget,” she said in a statement.

“Look at the numbers,” Loftus said. All the work has come in on time and underbudget!” The cost overruns quoted by CBA opponents are based on stilted and inaccurate assessments of the industry. “CBAs consider the costs of human rights and expanding accessibility to construction for disadvantaged groups, as well as training and apprenticeships, which help B.C.’s economy and communities. If you look at the apprenticeship ratio between the Building Trades and the non-union contractors, it’s seven to one — about 7,000 to 1,100. What are the long-term costs of not training people?”

After the first CBA-covered projects are completed, the government will study the effectiveness of the CBAs. Then, other major capital infrastructure projects will be assessed on a case-by-case basis to see whether CBAs can be applied to them as well.