Carpenter Zig van Akker worked on the Island Highway expansion project in the 1990s, and was forced to join a U.S.-based international union to do so.
Van Akker was later involved in a lawsuit to recover pension payments to that union, but it was the restrictive rules on the B.C. Building Trades-controlled job site that he doesn’t want to go back to.
“Carpenters weren’t allowed to operate a concrete vibrator, even for a moment, because that was labourer work,” van Akker told a news conference at the B.C. legislature.
These “craft lines” of traditional unions are at the core of objections to the B.C. NDP government making major public construction projects a closed shop for the traditional building trades. The Island Highway project is their test case for what they say is a big increase in labour costs.
Tom Sigurdson, executive director of the Building Trades, said the craft rules are a safety issue on construction sites, and compacting concrete isn’t as simple as it may appear.
“I’ve seen inexperienced people get on the end of the vibrator and vibrate the concrete to the point where they create such a hole that they fall in and need to be picked out,” Sigurdson said.
Transportation Minister Claire Trevena agreed to meet with the delegation Tuesday to hear their concerns first-hand. But taking questions from B.C. Liberal MLAs on their objections, Trevena showed no signs of turning back from a core NDP policy that takes effect with the Pattullo Bridge replacement in Metro Vancouver.
Trevena cited B.C. Hydro’s Waneta and John Hart Dam reconstruction projects that were contracted under the B.C. Liberal government, using the same project labour agreement with 19 building trades as the NDP is using.
Paul de Jong, president of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada, said the construction industry has evolved since the 1970s. Now 85 per cent of construction workers either belong to no union or to unions like the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC). The choice of union and employer is a constitutional right his association is going to court to protect, de Jong said.
CLAC spokesman Ryan Bruce said his union is one of the top three trainers of apprentices in construction, and it makes no sense for B.C. to restrict public construction to the B.C. Building Trades as a way of increasing apprenticeship opportunities.
Sigurdson said the apprenticeship system needs more than apprentices.
“On an annual basis, our local unions in British Columbia put in about $18 million through their collective agreements into the apprenticeship system,” he said. “I don’t know what CLAC does.”
CLAC member Tom MacDonald said he has worked for Ledcor for 19 years, and he doesn’t want to join another union so he can be dispatched from a hiring hall to whatever company has short-term employment for him.
Welder Natalie Bak said her entry into the male-dominated trade happened outside the old-line construction unions, and her younger female relatives see her as a role model.