Letter to the Editor: Granting Building Trades Unions a monopoly is blatant favouritism

Journal of Commerce | Paul de Jong | March 18, 2024

To the Editor:

It’s understandable why the Building Trades Unions (BTU) would support a return to a dated labour policy in Manitoba. After all, BTUS are the only ones who stand to benefit.

Manitoba plans to revert back to the days of old, when only companies affiliated with the government’s favoured unions can bid on public projects. This means many talented and highly experienced companies are prevented from bidding, for one reason only: their workers choose to belong to other unions or prefer to be non-unionized.

Member companies of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA) employ thousands of unionized workers who belong to the CLAC union. Why shouldn’t these workers have the same opportunity to build public projects in Manitoba?

Workers should always have the fundamental right to choose. And that includes Manitoba construction workers. They shouldn’t be shut out of public projects because they aren’t carrying the right union card

Across Canada, many regions are proving that taxpayers benefit when governments support competition. When there are more bids and greater competition, companies work harder to innovate, and that lowers project costs.

Construction competition not only ensures taxpayers get good value. It also ensures companies are awarded contracts based on merit, not union affiliation.  

But that’s not how it is in B.C. It’s the shining example of how restrictive Project Labour Agreements (PLAs) have been a public policy disaster. Only companies whose workers belong to BTUs can bid on key public projects in that province. Under this labour arrangement costs have soared, including construction of the Cowichan District Hospital, which is 63 per cent over budget. That’s a $559 million cost overrun that taxpayers must cover.

Not only that, but members of the Cowichan Tribes were initially shut out of building the hospital project, on their own lands, because they did not belong to the B.C.’s government’s favour union.

While the head of the Manitoba Building Trades suggests PLAs increase the employment rates of under-utilized groups such as women and Indigenous people, the reality is that a divisive PLA is not needed to achieve this worthy objective. Instead, the project commercial terms should instruct bidders to demonstrate their plans to bolster the hiring and training of apprentices and under-utilized groups. This is the way to increase opportunities in construction, rather than restrict labour access to public projects.

The Manitoba government’s decision to repeal the ban on PLAs is self-serving. Granting BTUs a monopoly on public projects is blatant favouritism, which the government hopes will translate into votes.

Naturally, the head of the Manitoba Building Trades describes the return to this costly and irresponsible labour policy as an “excellent move.”

It is if you’re a member of the BTUs. But for all other Manitobans, it’s not.

Paul de Jong
President and CEO
Progressive Contractors Association of Canada