Photo provided under a Flickr/Creative Commons agreement by C Hanchey.
For IBEW members, one expected positive impact of British Columbia’s recently announced community benefits agreement is the $1.4 billion project to replace the province’s aging Pattullo Bridge over the Fraser River.

Project labor agreements are effective tools for helping ensure that all workers on a particular job receive fair wages. They boost apprenticeship opportunities and provide paths for local contractors to bid successfully on PLA-covered projects. But not everyone agrees about their value, as evidenced by recent developments in British Columbia and Manitoba.

In the run-up to last year’s election in British Columbia, New Democratic Party leader John Horgan and other NDP candidates pledged support for implementing a B.C.-wide PLA for public infrastructure projects.

Though the NDP failed to gain a majority in that election, it achieved minority leadership by forging a limited alliance with the Green Party. Soon afterward, the province’s building trades began lobbying the new administration to make good on its PLA pledge — and on July 16, Premier Horgan delivered.

“British Columbians rightfully expect B.C. projects to benefit B.C. workers, families and communities,” he said, announcing a “community benefits agreement” PLA. “With this agreement, we’re not just investing in roads, bridges and other infrastructure. We’re investing in good jobs and new opportunities for people who live in B.C.”

The CBA could scarcely have come at a better time, said B.C. Building Trades Executive Director Tom Sigurdson.

“We’re soon going to face a skill shortage here,” he said. “The CBA will allow us to focus on solving shortages by providing B.C. workers access to training and tool time, so that projects are built safely and with a well-trained workforce.”

The B.C. Building Trades represents more than half of the non-residential construction sector in the province, including IBEW locals. Sigurdson said that the CBA should have a positive impact on job prospects for IBEW members, thanks in part to a $650 million Trans-Canada Highway widening project and the $1.4 billion project to replace the Fraser River’s aging Pattullo Bridge.

Not everyone in the province is happy with the CBA. “We anticipate that alternative labor suppliers will try legal means to overturn it,” Sigurdson said.

They’re also spreading myths, he said — such as the false claim that non-union contractors cannot bid on projects. (They can.) “Non-union workers who are on the job for 30 days will be covered by a union contract for the duration of the project,” Sigurdson said. That way, qualified workers get equal wages, benefits, and training.

Another myth is that unions can use PLAs as organizing tools. (They can’t.) “But we can’t help it if non-union workers decide for themselves that they enjoy the benefits of a union job,” he said.

“We’re out there protecting and defending the CBA, but we can’t do it alone. Our workers have to step up,” Sigurdson said. “Leaders of local unions have to talk politics, if we’re going to have a government that supports our interests. If we don’t, then shame on us.”

A different PLA fight in Manitoba is pitting its building trades against a Progressive Conservative party that is trying to ban such agreements for the province’s publicly funded construction projects.

Introduced earlier this year, the Public Sector Construction Projects (Tendering) Act — Bill 28 — “is completely ideological,” said Sudhir Sandhu, chief executive officer of Manitoba Building Trades.

Much as in B.C., many non-union contractors in Manitoba pretend to be pro-competition while falsely claiming that PLAs amount to “forced unionization.”

“Taxpayer-funded construction projects should put Manitoba workers and communities first,” Sandhu said, something that PLAs help ensure. “Banning them would result in fewer employment opportunities for Manitobans, lower safety standards and fewer opportunities for underrepresented community groups.”

For now, Bill 28 has not progressed very far, Sandhu said. While it awaits further consideration, some major projects have stalled as contractors wait to see what happens.

“Premier [Brian] Pallister has sent a clear signal by introducing this legislation,” he said, “but there’s still time to correct course. The real fight is over the next few months.”

Politicians pay attention to the constituents who vote, he said, and IBEW members need to tell their elected leaders how they want their taxpayer dollars spent.

“We’re not retreating on politics,” he said. “We have a chance now to educate our members and the public about PLAs and their proven benefits.”