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Agreement Disagreement: Jackman-Atkinson

November 18, 2017 8:06 AM | Columns

By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, Neepawa Banner & Press

Manitoba Legislative Building

Manitoba Legislative Building (FILE)

NEEPAWA, Man. — Manitoba is one of the few remaining jurisdictions in which project labour agreements (PLA) are used, but that might be changing. On November 3, the provincial government opened consultations on their current procurements practices, with a goal of reducing or eliminating the use of PLAs on major government projects.

PLAs are used on large-scale projects and set the wage rates and benefits that will apply to all employees. They replace any existing collective bargaining agreements and usually require that all workers hired pay union dues during their work on the project, even if they aren’t a union member. Recently in Manitoba, PLAs were used on Bipole III and the Red River Floodway expansion.

In making the November announcement, Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler said that they believe it will help them find savings for Manitoba taxpayers. The minister said that the PLA structure increases a project’s costs, reduces the number of potential contractors and infringes on the rights of workers.

The consultations follow on the heels of Manitoba Hydro’s announcement that they will terminate their Transmission Line Agreement, a PLA for transmission-based projects, at the end of this year. This will allow individual contractors to choose whether to use union or non-union workers and it’s expected the move will result in a larger pool of eligible contractors and increased competition in the bidding process.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) has been pushing the province to abandon PLAs, arguing they violate the charter rights of construction workers. The organization pointed out that PLAs were banned in the 47 EU member states after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that PLA policies were a violation of human rights. New Zealand, Australia and some American states have also eliminated the use of PLAs.

But there’s a counter-argument. Last year, the Manitoba Building Trades (MBT), which represents more than 8,000 construction and trades professionals in 13 member unions, released a document outlining the benefits of PLAs. It explained that PLAs provide common wages and working conditions for a large and diverse workforce and help protect the taxpayer from “fly-by-night” contractors who submit low bids based on using poorly trained workers. MBT notes that the use of PLAs doesn’t limit the number of contractors who can bid on a job, it merely requires them to pay prevailing rates.

According to MBT, though, one of the biggest benefits of PLAs is that they support the training of workers. The unionized construction industry contributes to the on-the-job training of Manitoba’s workforce and union dues support the province’s five training centres.

On the surface, PLAs do aim to meet an important goal, ensuring that large projects are undertaken by skilled tradespeople. However, despite their use, we continue to see instances of cost overruns and projects that don’t deliver as promised. American research on PLAs has reached mixed conclusions, though they seem to be most effective for highly complex projects and in locations where a higher percentage of the workforce is unionized.

As a taxpayer, we want value for our money. Most of us can agree that the lowest bid isn’t always the best; we want to see competitive prices, but high-quality work that will serve Manitobans for a long time. PLAs might help achieve this, they might not, but it’s worth investigating. Maybe it’s time to move away from the agreements, which were first introduced by premier Duff Roblin; a lot has changed since then and maybe so too should how we look at project procurement.