Major corporations turning to unions for political edge in battle for skilled workers, political approval

Despite nine years of unremitting hostility from the BC Liberals, the province’s construction unions are again making their presence felt.

Buoyed by the continuing need for skilled workers who can complete complex tasks on time, without compromising quality, a new coalition of building trades unions is finding allies in the private sector for project labour agreements. These agreements would see multi-billion dollar projects built entirely union.

It’s a return to an old labour relations arrangement that the Liberals have done their best to stamp out.

In this column for Business in Vancouver (Aug. 24 – 30 edition) I outlined how this trend played out in the debate over Metro Vancouver’s solid waste management plans:

The protracted battle over how to handle Metro Vancouver’s solid waste may have revealed the return of a tried-and-true labour relations tool that the BC Liberals tried to kill forever: the project labour agreement.
Front and centre at public consultations in the run-up to the hotly-contested Metro vote was Mark Olsen, business manager for the Construction and Specialized Workers Local 1110, speaking on behalf of the Coalition of BC Building Trades Unions.
Olsen pulled no punches, pitching hard for a mass burn incinerator proposed at Gold River by Covanta Energy of New Jersey.
If Covanta is successful, it has promised Olsen’s coalition that the entire project will be built union under a project labour agreement with Olsen’s local, a 6,000-member local of the Laborer’s International Union, and 15 craft unions of the BC Building Trades.
“We want the jobs and I do think it’s a good idea to have this project proceed,” Olsen said a few days before the final Metro vote. His union welcomes increased efforts for waste diversion, he added, but believes an incinerator will be part of the ultimate solution.
Until 2001, project labour agreements (PLAs) were a standard feature of major infrastructure projects in this province because they provided labour peace and an assured supply of skilled trades, both a key consideration for costly, time-sensitive investments.
But when Glen Clark’s New Democrats used such agreements on the Vancouver Island Highway and the Millennium Line, the province’s open shop contractors cried foul.
The Campbell Liberals allowed those deals to expire and refused to negotiate new ones.
Despite their strong support for both the Olympics and the Canada Line, building trades unions felt shut out of those two high profile projects and even saw temporary foreign workers hired for Canada Line tunneling.
But with hundreds of millions of dollars of at stake in upcoming infrastructure investments, some private sector firms are taking another look at PLAs.
Rio Tinto Alcan and its construction contractor Bechtel have concluded a PLA for construction of its new Kitimat smelter. Unlike the Covanta project, which requires Metro approval, the smelter project is committed.
Building Trades insiders believe yet another PLA may be executed for Enbridge’s controversial proposed pipeline to Kitimat, which is under fire from local governments and First Nations.
In Covanta’s case, the agreement offered vital lobbying leverage, providing a new and Canadian public advocate for a firm that is new to the province. Although the municipality of Gold River and the Muchalaht First Nation both endorsed the project, Olsen and his 50 supporters gave Covanta a big profile at public meetings in Metro and garnered significant media coverage.
“Covanta asked to meet, told us they wanted to build in Gold River and a docking facility in the Lower Mainland and said they needed help to bring it to fruition,” Olsen said. “We decided to take a more public stance to get the project going.”
Under the terms of the agreement, the unions would ensure skilled trades as required and also guarantee to open up hiring and training programs to local workers, with affirmative action for aboriginal workers and women.
Workers would enjoy all the benefits of union wages and benefits, as well as future access to employment elsewhere once trained.
Olsen was surprised to be contacted by Covanta, but believes there will be more such discussions because of the capacity of the building trades unions to provide skilled workers crucial for major projects.
Even the Port Mann Bridge, he says, being built under an overarching agreement with the Christian Labour Association of Canada — a darling of the open shop contractors — has so many subcontracts with union firms that a solid majority of the project is being built union.