The following op-ed, written by ICBA VP-Communications Jordan Bateman, was first published by Business in Vancouver on Dec. 8, 2022.
The unstoppable force of Indigenous rights has crashed into the immovable object of the NDP Government’s sweetheart deal with its union supporters – and it’s up to new Premier David Eby to fix another self-made NDP problem.
When the NDP’s management of the healthcare system is being roundly criticized, you’d think the Cowichan District Hospital replacement should be a good news story. After all, it will add 74 new hospital beds and three new operating rooms to the fast-growing Vancouver Island area.
Instead, the new hospital is a year behind schedule, hundreds of millions of dollars over budget, and the site of Indigenous protests – all because of the NDP’s restrictive and unfair labour policies.
Let’s start with the cost overrun – which even in a hot construction market, is eyepopping. The budget was originally announced as $400 to $600 million in 2018, but shot up to $887 million when they finally got around to putting it into the provincial budget.
Last month, Finance Minister Selina Robinson admitted that the cost had bloated again – now to $1.446 billion, and they’re barely in the ground yet.
Robinson claimed a myriad of factors for the overruns, but really there’s only one major reason. The NDP’s so-called Community Benefits Agreement, a thinly-veiled sop to the Building Trades Unions who have given the party millions in donations, work hours, and candidates.
For years, construction and other business associations have been warning about the costs of these deals, which mandates that only unionized companies can work on CBA projects.
This cuts out 85 per cent of all construction professionals in British Columbia, meaning far fewer bids on work. The less competition, the higher the cost.
Years ago, the NDP’s own agency, Infrastructure BC, tried to nudge the politicians to use their common sense, presenting evidence that union monopolies would jack up construction prices by 23 per cent. Keep in mind, that was a best-case scenario for taxpayers. History has shown overruns of 38 per cent, such as the 1990s-era Island Highway Project.
Back then, the construction industry was closer to a 50-50 union-open shop split. Today, it’s 85-15 in favour of open shop – which means even less competition, and even higher cost.
As frustrating as that is, it’s not news to the NDP, who see higher project costs as an acceptable price for you to pay, if it means rewarding their long-time supporters. But it’s about to become much more awkward.
Now, Indigenous workers are learning how discriminatory this government can be.
When the NDP decided to order a union monopoly for the Pattullo Bridge project, Indigenous-owned companies were exempted, and allowed to bid, even if they weren’t part of the NDP’s chosen unions. This meant some contracts went to non-Building Trades Union companies – and this prompted a rethink at NDP headquarters.
They closed that perceived loophole with no consultation, and now Indigenous workers have to be just as unionized as everyone else, whether they want to or not, UNDRIP and Reconciliation be damned.
As you might expect, things escalated. Last week, Jon Coleman of Jon-co Contracting, part of the Khowutzun Development Group, blocked access to the Cowichan site.
“This is our territory and our people and they are not granting us an exemption to work on our unceded land,” Coleman told The Times Colonist. “We shouldn’t have to be a union to work in our own territory. There has to be an exemption and I’ll stay here until there is.”
Coleman, an Indian Day School survivor, went on: “In the 40 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve never been handled like this … it feels like residential school all over again — shame on them. The difference between then and now is I have a voice.”
Frankly, all taxpayers should be reacting like this. Regardless of how they choose to organize their workforce, everyone should have the right to bid and work on government projects. The best bid should prevail, not the one that’s closest ideologically to the government.
In 2018, then-NDP Transportation Minister Claire Trevena justified union monopoly CBAs, claiming “any benefits to the community definitely outweigh whether there is an increased cost or not.”
The Cowichan District Hospital Project is proving her wrong. Already an additional $579 million out the door – money that could have funded six high schools, or doubled the Ministry of Mental Health and Addiction budget…for the next 23 years. The cost of tilting the playing field to her building trades cronies has instead sapped the community of several benefits – and picked another unnecessary fight with Indigenous communities.
Since becoming Premier, David Eby has reversed several of his government’s unpopular policies – including ones he himself originated as a minister. It’s time for him to do it again, and scrap the NDP’s union monopoly.