Rewind to 1960s Manitoba when the rotary phone was gaining in popularity, the minimum wage was about 75 cents an hour and the first cable TV was hooked up.
This was the era in which the practice of project labour agreements (PLAs) gained a foothold. Manitoba was building hydro dams and wanted to make sure it had a steady, stable source of skilled workers to draw from, especially in remote regions.
Back then, this monopoly was granted in exchange for labour peace. While a lot has happened in the half-century since then, Manitoba’s antiquated labour laws have stayed pretty much the same.
Finally, that is about to change.
“We want more Manitoba companies to participate in our bidding process,” PC Leader Brian Pallister declared during his election campaign. “The better the participation, the better value for money.”
Premier Pallister believes levelling the playing field could save taxpayers as much as $12 million by increasing competition that makes tax dollars go further on infrastructure projects and encourages investment and job growth.
It’s refreshing to hear fairness and value for hardworking taxpayers are the principles that should be guiding public policy in Manitoba. For too long, that’s not how it’s been.
For example, under the PLA in 2004, all workers were advised they had to pay union dues if they wanted to work on the Red River Floodway expansion project.
The same currently applies to Manitoba Hydro.
In order to work on any one of a number of large-scale hydroelectric projects, workers have to pay union dues, like it or not. This policy has even forced unionized employees to switch unions. The PLA for the Bipole lll Transmission Line and Keeyask Generating Station required all workers to belong to a select union. It’s a monopoly that all too often leads to cost overruns and delays on many large-scale public infrastructure projects.
As the new Manitoba government begins to revamp lopsided labour laws, the Lake Manitoba flood control channel seems a practical place to start. Described as a top priority during his campaign, Pallister vowed if elected his party would do what it takes to build the $495-million project in five years. This is an opportunity for the new government to save millions in flood claims and reduce construction costs by openly tendering the project to all who qualify to work on it, not just those who carry the right union card.
Although traditionalist union members beg to differ, it’s hard to argue that ending forced unionization is anything but the right thing to do.
Opening government tendering to all experienced companies and workers whether they have a craft union or alternative union affiliation, or otherwise, is fair and democratic.
When there’s fair competition, workers, employers and taxpayers all benefit. Besides, there are far more skilled workers employed by alternative union and non-union contractors than there were in the 1960s, which is why the rationale for PLAs simply no longer applies.
Restoring workers’ rights and allowing a tendering process that’s fair, open and competitive in Manitoba, would be a welcome change that’s long overdue.
Darrel Reid is the vice-president of policy and advocacy at the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada.
See also PCA’s letter to the editor on this topic in the Winnipeg Sun here.