As B.C. rebuilds its economy, major construction projects should play a significant role in getting more British Columbians back to work. But don’t count on local workers readily accessing jobs on the Pattullo Bridge replacement project. It’s among several large-scale public projects that are virtually off-limits to the vast majority of the province’s construction workers. This highly restrictive labour arrangement made no sense when it was first announced, and far less now.
Back in 2018, when the Horgan government first announced that a series of public infrastructure projects, including the Pattullo Bridge replacement would be built using a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), few understood the implications. At the time, the government promoted CBAs as a way to “maximize opportunities to develop and grow the skilled labour force.” We know now that the B.C. government’s version of a CBA - which is really just a select union-only Project Labour Agreement - has done just the opposite.
The reality is, that if your husband, wife, brother, sister or any other relative wants to help build the new Pattullo Bridge – and benefit from the good wages these jobs bring -- the chances are slim. It’s not because they aren’t qualified, or hardworking. It’s because they must be a member of the Building Trades Unions (BTUs), which represent only 15% of B.C.’s construction workforce. That means 85% of construction workers have no chance to build key public projects, for one simple and unacceptable reason: they don’t carry the right union card.
Besides sidelining perfectly qualified construction workers at a time when the province faces a severe shortage of skilled tradespeople, the Horgan government’s CBA regime impacts every single British Columbian by making construction work a lot more expensive. The government itself estimates its CBA has added $100 million to the cost of the Pattullo Bridge replacement. Other construction projects that fall under this labour arrangement are also way over budget. In total, CBA projects are costing British Columbians an additional $400 million, and counting.
The reality is that when construction projects cost more, infrastructure dollars don’t stretch nearly as far as they should. Taxpayers wind up paying more and getting less. That means fewer hospitals, roads or other critical infrastructure gets built. At a time when the Horgan government is grappling with a record deficit, it should be making every dollar count. And when skilled construction workers are in such short supply, it is arrogant and short-sighted for the B.C. government to shut them out of public projects.
When designed properly and for the right reasons, CBAs can improve communities through the employment benefits they generate. However, the Horgan government’s so-called “CBA framework” uses the language to mask a cynical payoff to his BTU friends – at the expense of the very communities, they are meant to serve. This is not how CBAs are supposed to work.
Construction workers in New Westminster and neighbouring Surrey should have every opportunity to help build the new Pattullo Bridge, which their tax dollars help fund. Local taxpayers also deserve to see lasting benefits from this project. It’s too big and too important to be used as a government reward to the BTUs for their campaign donations.
As we work to rebuild the economy, construction workers deserve the chance to bring home a steady pay cheque by building public projects in their communities. These are projects that should benefit every British Columbian, not just a select few.
- Paul de Jong, President of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA)