Les Leyne: Hydro heading for a fight with unions

Les Leyne mugshot genericThe 50-year-old labour model for building power projects has been shelved by B.C. Hydro, and it prompted a lawsuit Monday that could spell trouble for the huge Site C power project on the Peace River.

The B.C. Building Trades Council, representing about 35,000 tradespeople, has filed suit, claiming that the new arrangement that B.C. Hydro wants to use for the $8.8-billion dam violates the constitutional right of workers to organize. The issue has been simmering since last spring, but the trades council started quietly girding for a fight late last year. When Site C was formally approved by the government, they learned from B.C. Hydro it would not be built under the traditional project labour agreement.

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It was a “jaw-dropping” surprise, said trades council executive director Tom Sigurdson. Particularly since the $1-billion John Hart generating station upgrade near Campbell River was started under such an agreement. The outside contractor that bid on the job, SNC-Lavalin, signed an agreement with the Allied Hydro Council — an offshoot of the building trades council — for the work.

Such project labour agreements date back to the Bennett Dam in the 1960s. They provide for union wages and benefits, no-strike-no-lockout deals and apprenticeships; they now include equity hiring provisions and agreements on local and First Nations hiring.

The John Hart project deal was seen by some as an indicator that Site C would be built under the same understanding.

Instead, Sigurdson said, Hydro has indicated it wants to change the arrangement. The dam is going to be built as several components, each one a separate project. There will be no guarantees for building trades council work or wages, he said.

“There is so much risk in this,” he said. He said he has met cabinet ministers and senior officials in the premier’s office to argue against the new proposed terms, but they have all indicated it is B.C. Hydro’s call how the dam will proceed.

Sigurdson and other labour leaders were at a well-publicized meeting with Premier Christy Clark four months after her 2013 election win where everyone agreed to work together.

Phil Hochstein of the Independent Contractors of B.C. is a longtime critic of such project deals. He said Monday the building trades council is trying to go back to the closed shops of a previous generation.

“They’re trying to re-create a model that’s no longer relevant.”

The building trades council at one time represented a majority of the workers in the construction industry trades, but he said its 35,000 members now represent about 18 per cent of that workforce.

B.C. Hydro said it wants to create an “inclusive environment” in which all labour groups and contractors — union and non-union — can work in a managed open site. That model was commonly used on Olympic venues, the Sea-to-Sky highway and other major works.

It allows access to a larger labour pool, lets contractors and workers maintain existing contracts, supports labour stability and provides flexibility, it said.

Some labour terms will be common to all contractors and workers on the dam. Hydro said it knows the building trades council doesn’t support some of the terms, but discussions continue. The utility said short-listed proponents for the turbine and generator work are negotiating with the building trades council.

NDP Leader John Horgan said it’s “inconceivable” the B.C. Liberals would start a $9-billion project without setting clear labour terms, and the move was a slap in the face to the building trades.

Construction is supposed to start this summer. Landowners started court action over the flooding that will ensue from the project. First Nations in the region continue to oppose the project, which could become a critical issue.

B.C. Hydro could negotiate a way around the building trades’ lawsuit, but it said it consulted extensively with them beforehand. That didn’t produce much agreement.

If the suit proceeds and particularly if the council seeks an injunction, it could affect the critical timeline Hydro wants to follow for the project.

It will also focus attention on the number of temporary foreign workers on the site.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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