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Community Benefit Agreements are a lie

By mandating only select unions are eligible, the NDP is playing favourites. Here’s what that means, from one of those left out in the cold.
LMS provided steel for the Golden Ears Bridge. If the NDP has its way, they won’t work on the next one.

The BC NDP launched the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) initiative last year with the promise that it will deliver “jobs, training and apprenticeships, and more trade opportunities for Indigenous peoples, women and youth around the province.”

Who could take issue with that? The idea that public money on construction projects should benefit the community, and especially disadvantaged members of that community, certainly sounds right.

The criticism of CBAs has mostly been that the scheme will hand work uncompetitively to a small group of traditional trade unions, all with deep historic ties to the NDP. Much analysis has focussed on the vast additional sums that projects delivered through CBAs will cost taxpayers.

But while British Columbians are outraged by the blatant cronyism of the CBA scheme, their criticism has been muted by their approval of the notion of it providing “community benefits.”

There is no argument over whether the community should benefit from infrastructure work undertaken with public money – the argument is whether the work must be handed to traditional trade unions in order for the community to benefit.

To better illustrate the problems, I invite you to look at our company, LMS Reinforcing Steel Group (LMS).

LMS has long provided reinforcing steel supply and install services to many of BC’s largest infrastructure projects. Locally operated and owned, LMS has provided steel supply and install for the Sea to Sky Highway, the Golden Ears Bridge, the Highway 1 expansion, the Vancouver Convention Center, Ruskin Dam and BC Place Roof Replacement, to name just a few. Within this province, we employ over 550 people.

LMS is not a member of a traditional trade union and is therefore effectively precluded from all infrastructure projects undertaken with CBAs.

The NDP will argue that LMS can still bid for CBA work. Consider that not only would our employees be forced to join the union, and we could not do the work with our own employees – we would be forced to rely on any worker the unions chose to dispatch to us.

Effectively, LMS is excluded.

Excluding LMS from CBA projects might be warranted if it provided clear benefits to the community, benefits that LMS is unable or unwilling to provide. In other words, the ends of providing broad community benefits might justify the means of picking favourites.

But consider the following:

1. There are very few competitors to LMS for this kind of major infrastructure steel work in BC. By excluding LMS, competition is dramatically reduced, and the taxpayer will pay more for work handed to our competitors.

2. Our employees rejected the traditional trade union model. LMS was raided by a traditional trade union in 2014. After many months of effort and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by the union, our employees voted to reject the union by an overwhelming 4 to 1 margin. LMS employees concluded that LMS pay and benefits, including an employer contributed RSP program, was preferable to what they could obtain by joining the traditional trade union.

3. LMS has an internal training and apprenticeship program that meets or exceeds what the union offers. In January 2019 alone, the LMS Academy delivered 29 classes and 127 hours of technical training to 134 employees. This training is provided on a virtually unlimited basis at no cost to our employees. Our employees apprentice towards the exact same trade designation as the union ironworkers. And LMS advances capable, hard working employees far more rapidly than the trade union ever will.

4. LMS employs far more women, First Nations, and new immigrants as ironworkers in BC on a percentage basis than the trade union. By and large, construction trade unions remain bastions of white male privilege. By contrast, LMS ironworker crews in BC currently include 19 women, 48 First Nations, and 20 new immigrants. Over thirty years ago, LMS introduced the first women to the ironworker trade in BC and we continue to enthusiastically welcome women to the trade. We work with First Nations and new immigrant groups to place their members, and we employ, train and quickly advance anyone willing to work hard.

5. LMS gives to the communities we work in. As just one example, LMS has donated more than $1,000,000 to Canuck Place Children’s Hospice. Our employees are proud, contributing members of our local communities.

Our situation at LMS provides just one example. Countless other examples abide of local companies providing plenty of community benefits – without the need for uncompetitive NDP schemes.

Norm Streu is the President and Chief Operating Officer of LMS Reinforcing Steel Group, a top company in the reinforcing steel industry with extensive operations throughout Western Canada and the US. Norm has served as Chair of the Board of the Vancouver Regional Construction Association and director of the British Columbia Construction Association.