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Playing favourites

Ken Baerg: The NDP have shown their priority in infrastructure isn't spending and investing wisely, but rewarding their friends.

A daunting task awaits the next party to form government in British Columbia. They will have the colossal challenge of setting the stage for economic recovery in the wake of the carnage caused by this global pandemic.

In a different world and a different time – harkening way back to Spring of this year – BC was anticipating a budget surplus.  Now, we are staring in the face of a $13 billion deficit. There is no possible way to understate the toll COVID-19 has taken on our province from working families to businesses and the charitable sector – and the list goes on.

As British Columbians take to the polls this coming weekend, each political party continues to work feverishly to craft their messaging on what they understand to be the ballot box question (or questions). The key issues can differ dramatically from region to region and from sector to sector.

For those indirectly or directly tied to the construction sector, the stakes are undeniably high. There are close to a quarter million British Columbians who earn their living in this space. And it is our collective responsibility to think critically about the huge impact government policies can have on our sector.

The NDP have had the better part of a term to show their colours and their track record should concern all women and men who rely upon a robust construction sector. Unfortunately, the NDP has made it abundantly clear that they care more about rewarding their longtime political allies in the Building Trades Unions (BTU) than the remaining 85% of construction workers who chose not to belong to one their favoured unions. They have shown they care more about ensuring that the BTU has a lock on billions of dollars worth of public infrastructure work more than spending taxpayers’ dollars as efficiently as possible – in the midst of unprecedented economic challenges.

The NDP’s decision to sole source their favoured unions to perform all of the construction work on major public infrastructure projects such as the widening of the Highway 1 in BC’s interior, the construction of the Pattullo Bridge and the Broadway Subway expansion should not go unchecked. Their so-called Community Benefits Agreement (CBAs) fly in the face of anyone’s definition of fair and open tendering. In fact, CBAs fly in the face of the commitments Horgan and his government have made throughout their term in office and now again in advance of the election.

The NDP election platform states that: “…wherever possible, we will attach our Community Benefits Agreement (CBAs) to projects launched through the Recovery Investment Fund.” Thick with irony, their homepage leads with the tagline: “Now is the time to build an economy that works for everyone.”

These are two profoundly conflicting commitments.

In fact, the CBA program’s sole raison d’etre is to enforce a model of exclusion. Workers on major, taxpayer-funded infrastructure work governed by CBA’s will have had no say on their wages and working conditions.  They will have had no say on whether they wanted to be represented by a union, and if so, by which union.

Workers on these projects have to leave their current employer, their current team of employees, benefits plans, retirement savings plan - all to ensure the benefits flow directly to their political allies in the BTU. For the vast majority of the construction sector, such parameters are non-starters and serve as a de facto exclusion from these projects.

All of this in addition to the fact that workers are also taxpayers. And as taxpayers, they are receiving poor value for their tax dollars. By the government’s own admission, CBAs will add up to 7% to the cost of the projects. And based on the Highway 1 expansion project - the first of the projects being tendered under the CBA model - there is mounting evidence the price tag will be much higher.

That’s very conservatively $70 million for every $1 billion spent. This translates into schools and hospitals and court houses that won’t be built. In this era of economic recovery, dollars are being stretched in new and profound ways and the NDP has still somehow found reserves to impose the CBA model that is both unnecessarily exclusive and financially inefficient.

Viewing the CBA initiative through the lens of economic recovery reveals it as unconscionable. All of the stated virtuous goals of including marginalized workers are matters that have been – and should continue to be - part of contractual terms between owners and contractors. An exclusive deal with the BTU does nothing to further these causes.

Opportunities for economic recovery should be afforded to every British Columbian worker and every British Columbia contractor. If Mr. Horgan does indeed want to be a Premier for all working British Columbians, he should scrap the ill-conceived CBA program. Instead, he has committed to its expansion.

Ken Baerg is the Executive Director of Canada Works, the Council of Progressive Canadian Unions, a collaboration of leading labour unions – large and small, active in all sectors of the economy who share a passion for advancing positive, partnership-based labour relations that fosters shared prosperity through partnership, innovation and choice.