B.C.’s political future hangs in the balance

NDP win in next provincial election could jeopardize open shop industry
Wednesday, August 1, 2012
By Philip Hochstein

The next B.C. provincial election, slated for May 2013, is a source of great concern for many in the construction industry.

The Liberals’ polling numbers are way down. With just 23 per cent support in the latest poll, the Liberals’ are now neck and neck with the Conservative party, which is sitting at 22 per cent. Because of divided support on the centre-right of the political spectrum, the NDP, which has half the support of British Columbians, could emerge with a majority just as it did in 1996.

If the NDP wins, what will happen to the construction and labour files?

The NDP has yet to layout any detailed platform on these issues. But a look east to what’s being wrought by the governments in Ontario and Manitoba that are backed by the building trade unions gives a good indication of what a NDP victory in B.C. would be like. Both provinces have launched policies and programs tilted heavily in favour of the building trades.

“Friendly Manitoba”
In Manitoba, recently imposed new rules for public sector construction require all bidders and subcontractors to be involved in apprenticeship training. While training is good and it enhances trade skills for young workers, the concern is these rules amount to imposing craft collective agreement terms and conditions on open shop contractors.

Government can stipulate how contractors staff their jobs, impose apprentice-journeymen ratios as restrictive as one-to-one, limit the type of work tradesmen are permitted to do, force skilled individuals to go back to apprentice school and set pay higher than market rates for everyone on a job site. In other words, government dictates how to run a company, who to hire and the work employees can do – something it avoids in every other sector of the economy.

Manitoba has gone even further than quotas. Under its Project Labour Agreements, the Province has shut out open shop contractors and their employees from work on major projects. Unionization – or financial support of the unions – is imposed by the NDP government on companies working on major projects like the Bipole III hydro transmission line.

To obtain employment, workers must either be part of the building trades or pay the equivalent dues to the union. In total, work on projects worth $20 billion has been funnelled to the union movement. These union-friendly agreements are being challenged in the courts – backed by the assertion that they violate the constitutional guaranteed freedoms of expression and association. If these agreements are found to be unconstitutional, it will change the face of labour relations in Canada – and stop the NDP from delivering similar deals in B.C.

“Yours to Discover”
In Ontario, the situation has been more far-reaching than dictated staffing requirements, rates of pay and forced unionization on major projects. It’s about trade union control of industry through backdoor training by way of the province’s new College of Trades.

The province’s newly created College of Trades is in charge of construction training, workplace rules and enforcement. It has the ability to tax industry and workers to fund the college, map out what work businesses and individuals can do based on union jurisdiction plans, and control and limit who businesses can hire through compulsory trade regulations and apprentice-journeymen ratios.

The college also has the equivalent of a new, independent quasi-police force dedicated to investigating employers and workers. Unions will be able to burden companies with complaints and full-blown investigations thanks to this enforcement branch.

Destruction of open shop construction
What has been seen in Manitoba and Ontario are policies that benefit the building trades and hurt the open shop construction industry. They not only make life more difficult for hard-working family-owned companies but they layer on extra costs by attacking open shop’s competitive advantage. The price for this is picked up by construction’s customers – and the taxpayers who pay for government projects that end up costing more than they need to.

Philip Hochstein is president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association (ICBA) of B.C.

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