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OP/ED: Beware the Government’s Back Room Deal with Big Unions

By Chris Gardner, President, Independent Contractors and Businesses Association. (This op-ed first ran in The Vancouver Sun on January 25, 2019.)

Hold on to your wallets, modern-day snake oil salesmen are in Vancouver this week to help the NDP government push its miracle cure for construction, Project Labour Agreements (PLAs).

But PLAs only do three things – cost taxpayers more money, rip away workers’ right to choose how they organize themselves, and discriminate against the 85 per cent of construction workers who are not part of these chosen unions.

Last year, the NDP Government announced it would create a new crown corporation to employ all construction workers building a new Pattullo Bridge and expanding Highway 1 east of Kamloops. These workers will be forced by government to join one of the 19 building trades unions that have a monopoly over these projects. Gone will be workers’ existing pay, bonus and profit-sharing plans and their existing union or employee association affiliations and, in their place, they will be forced into new agreements and a requirement to pay union dues, fees and pension contributions, a good portion of which workers will never recoup.

This sweetheart deal with the unions who have given the NDP millions in campaign donations was cynically branded by government spin doctors as “Community Benefit Agreements.” But the only benefits that flow will be those flowing into the coffers of these favoured unions.

Why is the government forcing thousands of construction workers to be hired by a new government corporation when these workers are already employed by private companies? To what end is the government forcing all of these workers to join one of just 19 selected unions?

Will more workers be trained? No. Will more young people, women or Indigenous workers be hired on these projects? No. Will workers be paid more? No.

On Friday, January 25, two NDP cabinet ministers, a host of Big Labour organizers and a parade of American “experts” will be at a Vancouver five-star hotel, trying to justify this flawed model to British Columbians.

A speaker from Seattle’s Puget Sound Transit has been hired to gush over these unfair hiring practices. What he won’t admit is that Sound Transit’s own evaluation of this model includes a litany of complaints from sub-contractors: “The majority of subcontractors… who have gone through this process have said they would not do it again.” Added one sub-contractor: “[This was] absolutely a miserable experience.”

B.C. companies know this feeling all-too-well. In the 1990s, the NDP Government of the day forced a PLA on the Island Highway project. It was confusing and ran wildly over budget.

In one of the busiest construction markets in decades, the NDP government has inexplicably decided to exclude 85 per cent of the construction workforce. Fewer companies will bid on this work and this lack of competition will drive up prices and limit innovation and limit worker choice. None of this makes any sense.

Even the NDP Government admits their model will cost taxpayers more.  Transportation Minister Claire Trevena said it would add at least $100 million on the Pattullo Bridge project.  She is grossly underestimating the costs: the American experience shows PLAs drive up construction costs by 12 to 18 per cent, say researchers at Suffolk University.

An 18 per cent overrun on the Pattullo Bridge means taxpayers would spend a quarter of a billion dollars unnecessarily. That $250 million would make a nice down payment on a replacement for the 60-year-old Massey Tunnel, or a new hospital for Surrey – but instead, it will vanish into thin air.

Another PLA salesman marching into town for the swanky conference works for the Los Angeles Unified School District. No doubt he’ll fail to mention the massive cost overruns that resulted in a high school that cost about $750 million (CDN) to build – the most expensive public school in U.S. history.

The snake oil salesmen will pack up their PLA wares and go home after this union conference. Let’s make sure they take the added construction costs and stripping of workers’ rights home with them.

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