Community benefit agreements increase public return on construction investments

The B.C. government is considering the future of the Site C dam project — whether to complete it (our preference) or shut it down.

By Brian Cochrane and Adam Van Steinburg.

Whichever side you take in the debate, it has given B.C. a chance to think about how to get maximum value from public construction. Community benefit agreements increase public return on construction investments.

In our view, it’s time for B.C. to return to the collaborative model of construction management that prevailed before 2001. The provincial government spends billions of dollars every year on electric power projects, highways and other infrastructure. We need formal mechanisms to ensure that this investment flows back into B.C. regions to support families, local businesses and workforce development.

These are not abstract ideas. B.C. has a proven track record of creating project agreements that put real dollars into the pockets of real people.

Long-time premier W.A.C. Bennett, a hero of the conservative cause, made use of project agreements with labour and contractors when his government built the big hydro dams in the 1960s. He did it to achieve cost certainty and a guaranteed supply of construction workers. He knew that by working with unions in good faith, he would complete provincial projects safely and on time.

The NDP government updated the project labour agreement model on the Vancouver Island Highway Project in the 1990s. It provided fair wages and working conditions for all workers on the job, whether their employer was union or non-union. It delivered business and employment benefits for the Island’s First Nations and measures to hire and train women in construction. The project was completed at the end of the NDP term within the 1993 budget.

The Liberal government under Gordon Campbell scrapped the Vancouver Island agreement and closed the door on any new agreements. The Liberals preferred a strictly low-bid approach, where contractors would have no obligation to use certified tradespeople, train apprentices, hire locally or bring First Nations and women into the construction workforce.

By ignoring the interests of working people and communities, the Liberals were going to save the taxpayer big bucks. But guess what?

On B.C. Hydro’s Site C, a recent independent report from consultants at Deloitte found that the project has already overshot its budget. “Low bid” is turning into a nightmare. Deloitte put “performance issues of contractors” first on the list of project risks.

B.C.’s construction unions, such as the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 115 and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 213, advocate for what we now call community benefit agreements. Yes, these structured project agreements will be great for our members. But we know from experience that contractors will benefit too, from the on-site safety services unions provide, the experienced labour that unions provide, and the resulting productivity.

Government and its agencies will benefit from cost certainty and quality assurance. And we’re urging the B.C. government to talk to communities and First Nations about local hiring, essential skills training and apprentice training. Unions are qualified to help provide that training because — in the view of Jessica McDonald, the deputy minister to former premier Christy Clark who wrote a report on training in 2014 — unions are the most effective skills trainers in the province, with the highest rate of apprentice program completion.

Community benefit agreements increase public return on construction investments

Under our proposal to the government, community benefits agreements will deliver:

  • industry-standard wages, benefits and contributions for all workers, union and non-union;
  • industry-standard safety rules and requirements;
  • programs to advance women, First Nations and apprentices;
  • a ban on the employment of workers from offshore under sub-standard employment and living
  • a guarantee of wage predictability and no labour disruptions, to support project completion on
    time and on budget;
  • a fair bidding process open to all contractors, union and non-union, with selection based on
    demonstrated excellence in project management.

Some critics suggest that our proposal is scary. In fact, it pulls together priorities that governments of all stripes have been working toward for the past decade. At its most controversial, the community benefit agreement model requires that public construction projects should serve the public first, rather than the interests of non-union contractors.

Source: Brian Cochrane and Adam Van Steinburg: Community benefit agreements increase public return on construction investments.