Poll reignites CBA debate in B.C. as province looks to recovery

Journal of Commerce | Russell Hixson | June 4, 2020

A new poll commissioned by the BC Building Trades suggests a majority of British Columbians support Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs) and want to see them applied to public infrastructure projects as part of the province’s economic recovery plan.

The online survey conducted by Research Co. found that 74 per cent of British Columbians either “strongly” or “moderately” support CBAs, and 77 per cent agree with using them to help the province mend from the COVID-19 pandemic. The level of support for CBAs is four points higher than it was when Research Co. first asked the question in August 2018.

The results are based on an online study conducted this month among 800 adults in British Columbia.

“I’d say that British Columbians have been familiar with CBAs for three years now,” said Andrew Mercier, executive director of the BC Building Trades. “They have been part of the public discourse in a public way now for the past several years. They make good sense. They are a good policy to ensure the public in surrounding communities recapture the value of infrastructure spending.” 

Mercier said he believes the pandemic has made residents attuned to economic concerns. He added that a policy like CBAs with skills training and jobs for vulnerable groups in local communities is attractive. 

“CBAs ensure that jobs are prioritized for locals, apprentices, Indigenous people and women,” Mercier said. “That means you have a degree of certainty that the dollars spent are going to be spent in the B.C. labour market. That’s very attractive when you are entering into a recessionary period.”

Mercier added that CBAs also give a career pathway to those who are being impacted by COVID-19, especially women who have been disproportionately affected. 

“I would say to anyone skeptical, go to the source material,” said Mercier. “Don’t listen to political spin or partisanship around the issue. Go get the facts. You can go look it up. It is publicly available.”

Chris Gardner, president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association (ICBA), argued that the two questions presented didn’t go into detail about CBA union restrictions, instead asking respondents if they support opportunities for women, Indigenous people, apprentices and locals. 

“The answer of course is ‘yes,’” said Gardner. “But I would say that every single contractor in this province has been doing just that. The wage and benefits survey the ICBA does shows that for the last four years the number one challenge facing the construction industry is a shortage of skilled workers. The private sector was doing this long before the NDP decided to enact a procurement policy that they call CBAs.”

Gardner explained he believes the real issue of CBAs excluding most of the construction industry from participating in CBA projects was not included.

“The real issue is that the government policy is very clear,” he said. “If you are not a member of a Building Trades union, you are excluded from these projects. The government cut a backroom deal that excludes 85 per cent of construction workers. That is unfair and it is discriminatory.”

Gardner called for a policy that leaves no one behind as the government looks to rebuild the economy in the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Everyone who works in construction should have a fair shot at government work,” said Gardner. 

The ICBA, along with other industry groups, continues to fight the CBA policy in court.

Paul de Jong, president of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada, said the poll shows desperation by the Building Trades to dress up a flawed policy.

“They are trying to put a tuxedo on a turkey and it’s just not adding up,” de Jong said, stating infrastructure costs on projects are skyrocketing and skilled workers are being shut out of jobs.

He argued that CBAs are less competitive which leads to wasted money, less infrastructure and fewer jobs. 

“A CBA that restricts choices of workers, who can only work if they join union against their will, just doesn’t make sense,” said de Jong. “You should open things up rather than shut them down.”

De Jong argued the massive economic slowdown has contractors eager for opportunities and they need to have options and room to be innovative and use progressive ideas.