Scott Stanfield photo

Column: Labour Day – in need of reclamation

“We live in an era where workers’ rights are often taken for granted”

Let’s face it – for the vast majority of us, Labour Day represents that last day of vacation season, where we cling to the vestiges of a fading summer for one more day. We follow the time-honoured traditions of cramming highways, campgrounds and parks before we return to routine.

We live in an era where workers’ rights are often taken for granted and the significance of Labour Day has been relegated to the annals of history. We might take a look back and point to the many sacrifices made by early pioneers in the labour movement, and how too many are unaware of the path that was paved for us. But even more concerning than this is witnessing where the labour movement in this province seems to be going, particularly in the construction sector – where tens of thousands of British Columbians find their livelihood.

Traditional unions in the construction sector have typically organized themselves by trade. While these trade unions present a front of unity through their affiliated bodies, one only has to scratch through a very thin veneer and keep an ear to the ground to hear endless rumours of in-fighting, disagreements, and jurisdictional disputes.

But even through their internal dissention, these unions have decided that creating monopolies is their best chance at hanging onto market share. These unions strip their own members of choice, giving them no option to leave one affiliate for another—a wonderful way to lock in a customer!

Notwithstanding their attempt to build a model on coercion, their membership has shrunk. Since the 1970s, private sector union density has fallen by half. What further evidence is needed to realize a group has lost their way?

To their profound discredit – and to the surprise of very few who know of the deep incestuous relationship between the current provincial government and the traditional craft construction unions – the NDP has found a cure for falling private sector union density and intern union dysfunction in the construction sector. The government has engaged in outright collusion by providing the traditional craft unions yet another monopoly – this one, over all major public infrastructure projects.

Let’s be very clear about what this means: British Columbian construction workers – the vast majority of whom have opted to find a career outside of the traditional craft unions – cannot work on upcoming public infrastructure work such as roads and bridges, schools and hospitals, unless they opt to become a member and pay dues to these government-selected unions. And by all appearances, this is happening with no employee input whatsoever. No decision on which union might best represent them and no say on the negotiated terms and conditions.

Now, the government and their cozy craft union allies have made much to do about the “community benefits agreements” that flow out of this. However, an ounce of scrutiny reveals that not only could all the noted benefits be accomplished through commercial contracts between any project owner and the participating contractors, but the training itself is being funded by taxpayers and being provided exclusively through the union halls! Another shameless way the government and these unions have colluded to build their business.

Whether through a constitutional challenge or increased public scrutiny, collusion of this magnitude—to the detriment of all but a chosen few—cannot be tolerated. On this Labour Day, all British Columbians should take a few moments to celebrate and to ask questions. As an employer or an employee, a union worker or a nonunion worker, we should celebrate the balance that has been brought to labour-management relationships over the course of many decades.

We should also question a government and their traditional union allies on their intent to deny workers a fundamental right: to choose whether or not to unionize, and if so, to choose a union that aligns with their goals and values.

Ken Baerg is president of the Canada Works Council.

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