Premier John Horgan announces a $1.8 million pilot project to get more women into skilled trades at the B.C. legislature, March 8, 2018. (Arnold Lim/Black Press)

Premier John Horgan vows union public construction (with video)

Pattullo bridge replacement marks return to ‘project labour agreements’

Premier John Horgan says union-only deals for major construction projects are the way of the future, and the replacement of the 80-year-old Pattullo bridge linking Surrey and New Westminster is the “perfect template” for B.C.

Horgan made the comments Thursday at a B.C. legislature ceremony to announce a pilot project to get more women into skilled construction trades.

“I believe that the Pattullo bridge, $1.37 billion, can and will be done with a project labour agreement, a community benefits arrangement, and we’re working on that right now with our partners and making sure that we get an agreement in place that meets the test for British Columbians,” Horgan said.

A typical project labour agreement establishes a work site as union-only, in exchange for a commitment not to go on strike. Horgan said that’s the model for future major public construction, including commitments by unions to meet a quota of apprentices on each job.

“There are going to be different situations as we go along,” Horgan said. “Hospitals are not bridges. Transit lines are not bridges. So we’re going to adapt agreements as we’re negotiating with contractors, as we’re putting out requests for proposals.”

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The B.C. Liberal government steered the province to open-shop construction, most recently for the early stages of the Site C dam project. Horgan said he has instructed B.C. Hydro to go back to project labour agreements in the future.

“That worked for W.A.C. Bennett, it worked for Bill Bennett and I believe it will work for me,” Horgan said. “I look back now on the projects that were built without community benefits agreements by the previous government, and I’m reminded that the Port Mann bridge was over budget. The Northwest transmission line was wildly over budget. The Vancouver convention centre, the roof at B.C. Place, all over budget.”

The Island Highway expansion in the NDP-led 1990s was a union-only job that was criticized for cost escalation and scaling down to drop interchanges in favour of traffic lights. The Mackenzie interchange north of Victoria is under construction today, after many years of daily traffic slowdowns known as the “Colwood crawl.”

Chris Gardner, president of the non-union Independent Contractors and Business Association, cites a 1994 Vancouver Board of Trade report that estimated the project labour agreement increased Island Highway costs by 38 per cent.

“Horgan’s vision is to use sweetheart deals to tilt the playing field in favour of 20 per cent of the construction workforce,” Gardner said in a recent commentary.

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