A new master union agreement for public construction could add as much as $100 million to the cost of replacing the Pattullo Bridge, according to B.C. transportation ministry estimates. (Black Press files)

B.C. VIEWS: Big unions living large in public construction-land

The boys like their steak, bosses like a beefy slush fund

A reader named “Jim” didn’t take kindly to my column last week on the B.C. NDP government’s sudden move back to the 1970s-style international union monopoly on public construction.

“I’ll bet the only pipe you ever laid was a hash pipe,” wrote Jim, in reference to my time in non-union construction in the 1980s.

In a series of terse emails, Jim talked tough, but not tough enough to share his last name. “Maybe if you did a better job, you too could have been a union worker, but I doubt it,” he advised me. “We can usually spot a slacker scab pretty quickly.”

In his earthy way, Jim captures the assumptions that are now B.C. government policy. Non-union, or worse, what they call “rat union” employees are poorly trained, inefficient and lazy.

“Brothers and sisters,” as Premier John Horgan addressed the assembled members of his anointed 19 international unions when announcing the monopoly, are so superior they can complete a big road or bridge job faster and cheaper despite lavish benefits and higher wages.

Given that 85 per cent of construction work in B.C. is now non-union, that’s a lot of lazy scabs. Fortunately, the new system allows international unions to pick the workers they deem acceptable to the “brotherhood” and force them to join.

The NDP government quietly released its “community benefits agreement” for this deal, which takes effect with the Pattullo Bridge replacement and then moves to a series of projects to widen the Trans-Canada Highway east of Kamloops. At more than 300 pages, it is an old-school union choke-hold with perks and conditions that go on and on.

Non-union companies are free to bid, as long as they pay wages and benefits set by the U.S.-based “qualified affiliated unions.” They can even choose some of their employees, although a quota for each trade will be imposed. Those lucky workers will not only have to pay union dues, but also pay into union-controlled pension fund, “industry rehabilitation fund,” and skill improvement fund. The largest fund deduction, 25 cents per worker hour, is funnelled into a “council administration” slush fund to finance the newly created union council.

The government also set up a new Crown corporation to administer this deal, called B.C. Infrastructure Benefits Inc., with its own CEO and staff. There’s a lot to administer, as a peek into the dusty list of perks indicates.

Take the menu requirements for work camps, like the ones that will be needed for the Trans Canada Highway jobs. Here is a sample of what’s required for lunch and dinner:

“Salad table will be refrigerated or ice provided. Minimum requirements … an assortment of salads, coleslaw, green salad (tossed), potato salads and two other prepared salads (Caesar, Greek, pasta, bean salad, protein etc.)

“Beef steaks must be served once per week, between Monday and Thursday. Roast beef once per week. There will be no duplication of first line choice [meats] in a five-day period other than beef and beef steak.” And every meal must be all-you-can-eat.

Transportation Minister Claire Trevena stresses the ambitious quota for 25 per cent apprentices. We’ll see what that does to efficiency on taxpayer-funded projects.

Somehow this will all translate into a maximum seven per cent increase in the cost of public construction, according to Trevena’s minions. So around $100 million extra to replace the old four-lane Pattullo Bridge with a new four-lane bridge.

Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca


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