Les Leyne: Union ‘turkeys’ were not amused by Horgan joke

It took a half-hour of badgering in the legislature on Tuesday, but Premier John Horgan finally explained the context to a rude remark he made a few years ago about a construction union.

Opposition Liberals were dwelling on the fact he referred to the Christian Labour Association of Canada as “turkeys” in a speech three years ago to a different union before he became premier.

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Explaining to an NDP-friendly union audience how an NDP government would handle public projects, he said: “We’re going to do it with union labour. You don’t do it by going with Phil Hochstein (then leader of an independent contractors association) and the turkeys at CLAC. That’s not how I roll.”

It wasn’t the Liberals that forced him to elaborate further. It was the fact that dozens of the “turkeys” were glaring at him from the gallery.

They are workers from around B.C. belonging to unions outside the mainstream labour movement who feel left out by what Horgan’s government came up with to fulfil that union labour pledge.

It devised community benefits agreements 18 months ago that require designated public works jobs to be handled by workers from only government-approved unions, with hiring through a centralized government agency.

Turns out the turkey reference was a bit of an in-joke. Hochstein had been named to the B.C. Turkey Marketing Board around that time, one of the more amusing patronage appointments of the Liberal era.

“That was where the concept came from,” said Horgan.

They still didn’t find it funny. Nothing worse than having to explain a joke to a hostile audience.

About 100 workers and contractors who feel left behind by the community benefits agreement process rallied later to make the case that the whole process should be scrapped.

That’s not going to happen. But the striking thing after two days of arguments in the house about community benefit agreements is how few public sector projects are actually covered by such deals.

Considering how much emphasis was put on the arrangement when it rolled out in 2018, it’s curious how limited the application is after 18 months.

“There are three projects in B.C. that are using community benefits agreements, because we want to kick-start apprenticeship training in British Columbia, and we’re sticking with that,” Horgan said.

Three out of hundreds of big projects sounds like a paltry share, although they are all huge projects. Two of them — the four-laning of the Trans-Canada Highway from Kamloops to Alberta and the Pattullo Bridge replacement — were listed as such on the day they were announced. Meaning just one — the eventual Broadway Street subway in Vancouver — has been included since.

The concept was billed as a “landmark agreement” at the initial announcement. With such a small sample size it’s hard to pass judgment on whether it’s working or not.

But that didn’t stop Liberals and New Democrats from arguing about it.

Liberals listed numerous workers in the gallery who now feel like second-class citizens, aggrieved by being shut out of work or forced to change employers or unions if they want to qualify for jobs on public works projects.

The government acknowledged at the time that community benefits agreements come with a cost and that appears to be borne out.

One of the Trans-Canada Highway four-laning contracts came in higher than budgeted. And there appear to be far fewer bids on such projects. Liberals say the highway job got four bids when such work would normally get 15 to 20.

There were three bids short-listed for the $1.3 billion Pattullo Bridge project.

But the booming construction business might also be a factor.

Horgan said he was optimistic and confident community benefits agreements will lead to more apprenticeships than in the past.

Transportation Minister Claire Trevena said women account for 22 per cent of the workforce on the highway project, which is above the provincial norm.

Improving the apprenticeship opportunities was one the government’s main arguments in defence of the new arrangement. But the vast majority of unionized workers have to make different union and company arrangements if they want to work on such jobs.

The question of whether it’s fair or not will go to court early next year.

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