Cardus’ director of Work and Economics made waves on Canada’s West Coast this month with a report critiquing the B.C. government’s move to let only unionized construction companies bid for major infrastructure projects. But, Brian Dijkema tells Convivum, the policy will cost taxpayers billions, punish workers, and risk damage to democracy itself.
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Convivium: In terms of what's going on in B.C. right now, their changes to their tendering policies seem to be swimming against the tide. You point out in Skimming Off the Top: How Closed Tendering Weakens Our Ability to Pursue the Public Good that Manitoba has already gone in the direction Cardus is advocating, and it looks very much like Ontario will follow suit. Why would the B.C. government balk at what has become evident to other governments as the way to go?
Brian Dijkema: They're swimming against the political and policy tide, but I think even more importantly they're swimming against the tide of the way the industry itself is developing.
There was a time, in the '70s and the '80s, when the only labour supply for (the construction industry) came from a particular group of unions. That's no longer the case. The reality is there's been tremendous development within the labour market that happened organically, not by government intervention or major policy changes. People said, "We've got to find a better way of doing these things," and a whole bunch of models sprang up. Cardus has been talking since the early 2000s about the way it's been developing.
So, B.C.'s move is swimming against the tide of good public policy that would favour fair, open and competitive tendering. But it’s also swimming against developments within the industry itself. I think, in the long run, that's the more important problem.
Convivium: So, if it’s not good policy, and the industry no longer needs it, who benefits?
Brian Dijkema: It’s not a controversial statement to say B.C.’s NDP government is very close friends with the building trades unions. The unions have supported the NDP financially. And ideologically, they're aligned. They truly believe the only way to achieve justice for workers is to have one particular model, and that's the model being used by the building trades. So, the NDP is saying, “Here's the quid pro quo for that support.” Of course, if you were to ask them if this is payback, they would say: “We're just looking out for workers.”
But that doesn't hold up because if, for example, wages were their concern, there are other ways to address them. This is the worst possible way.
C: A major concern I see expressed in the report is about the politicization of government procurement. You seem to be identifying a movement away from adjudication based on best bang for the public buck and toward ideological considerations. It’s similar, in a way, to the Canada Summer Jobs fiasco where the federal government has said personal belief is a major criterion to qualify for public funding. Am I reading that accurately?
BD: Absolutely. It is the politicization procurement. It’s also, quite frankly, the politicization of labour. And that is problematic for a couple of reasons. B.C. has a long and sad tradition of major swings in labour policy, depending on who's in power. So, you have one government in power putting certain policies in. Another government with a different ideological perspective comes in and just swings the other way. And that's not a healthy approach to labour. It's not stable. It's not good for workers. It's not good for the economy. That gets to the key point in our paper, which is the morality of it.
Governments are supposed to rule for all on behalf of all. It doesn't mean a government can't have a perspective. They can have priorities on wages, on getting Indigenous workers into the labour pool, on getting more women in the workforce. These are all legitimate and, in many ways, laudable policy objectives. But the way to go about that is to set it as an objective and to allow civil society and the markets to respond appropriately. What they've done instead is use their political power to create a preferential status for a particular private association. And that's bad news.
The one thing I keep saying to everybody is that democracies are necessarily fluid. That means a given party’s going to be in power for 10-12 years maximum, maybe 15 in Ontario. And everybody loves it when you're on the winning side. But your side isn't going to win forever. It's a point I don't think everyone appreciates. So, you have to ask, "How would I react if the other side was doing this?" What would happen if a Liberal government in B.C. were to say, "We're going exclusively non-union on our procurement process"? There would be an absolutely justified outroar, you know, uproar and outrage. I see this as exactly that type of approach. They're not governing unto others as they would govern themselves.
C: It’s one thing to favour certain policies. It’s another to make the awarding of government contracts dependent on willingness to march in the parade and wave the ideological banner.
BD: Our Constitution guarantees certain freedoms, and those are wonderful things, valuable things. They recognize there are some things inherent to what it means to be human. We associate with different groups based on different perspectives at different times, and we recognize that the government should be neutral with regard to those particular choices. There are already a host of adjudication bodies that make decisions based on the law as to whether those choices were made in good faith or whether they were done in nefarious ways. That's the proper place for those decisions, not in procurement.
C: Not in allocation of public dollars.
BD: And, you know, we're talking about billions of dollars here.
C: You cite $43.75 billion just for the largest public works underway right now.
BD: Exactly. The costs matter. But it's the social cost that matters more to me. This is major work, and they have not justified why the government should forbid those who pay taxes from working because they've made a different choice than the one the government prefers. It doesn't make sense.
C: A compelling argument I found in the report was the distinction that you draw, if you want to frame it in old language, between capital and labour. You make a distinction between the firms that will realize this work and the labour that will actually carry out particular jobs to get projects finished. The issue is the structure of an organization versus whether that organization is “organized”, using labour union language, by a particular group. You argue companies must have the freedom to bid on projects based on their ability to organize their workforce in the way that delivers the most efficient and highest-quality outcome for taxpayers and for citizens.
BD: I think it's the key point, and I'm glad you asked it, because it hasn't come up in other interviews. People say, "Oh, the (B.C. NDP policy) is favouring labour." And it is. Don't get me wrong. It is favouring a certain model of labour and locking out of work a bunch of people that need to pay the bills and feed their families. That is absolutely true. What's less discussed is this actually creates preferential space for certain companies, and often those companies will be the biggest companies. That doesn't get appreciated enough. What the government is doing is picking winners on the company front.
By picking and choosing one labour model, they have given a leg up to companies that use that labour model, and in so doing have given a preferential option to certain types of capital, which is not what you would typically expect from a government that is pro-labour.
C: It is so important people understand that. It makes clear you're not saying go non-union. You’re not saying break down unions or get rid of union labour. You’re saying let different forms of organizations of firms, different forms of companies, compete with each other to see who can deliver the best product. And if it's a union firm, let them demonstrate that they can. If it's non-union, let them demonstrate that they can. If it's a different form of union organization let them show they can benefit citizens, benefit taxpayers and properly steward the spending of public money. It's not about breaking down unions, is it?
BD: Not even close. On the contrary. I think unions are important. I think building trades unions are an important part of the mix of the labour market. I think they provide unique values to their members in terms of training, wages, pensions…. They do all kinds of good things. You would think because they do those things, they would be able to show workers the benefits and get a leg up in the market of attracting people into their labour pool. The question is: Why do they need the government to make that case for them?
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The model we're asking for is not saying go non-union by any means. It's simply saying let all the workers who are qualified, and all the companies who have done the hard work to become willing and ready to do that work, have a chance. Don't use the affiliation of their workers as a criteria to keep them out.
C: It seems a simple, straightforward argument.
BD: It is a simple argument. It's not controversial. Every government in the developed world has policies on procurement that require them to be fair, open, transparent and accountable. And what the B.C government is doing gets rid of the competitiveness and the openness. It's not a controversy. It's a controversy only because they've made it one.
C: What many Canadians might find controversial is that the policy reduces the actual pool of eligible companies – not workers, but companies – by up to 84 per cent.
BD: Everybody in the marketplace would love it if the State intervened to get rid of their competition. Can you imagine if the government were to say to Coca-Cola, "You know what, Canadians are no longer able to buy Coca-Cola except in these few areas." Pepsi would be over the moon, right? They would say, "What a gift the government has given us." And that's exactly the case here. Certain companies are being given a gift by the government of B.C.
C: It's got the whiff of crony capitalism about it, even if that isn't the intention, doesn’t it?
BD: It’s not the whiff. It's the smell. You can trust your nose on it.
C: And that’s, again, where the moral implications come in…
BD: I'm not sure if what they’re doing is Constitutionally acceptable. But in any case, I don't think the law is the baseline on which we should be doing things. We should be doing things on whether they're moral or not. Even if (the policy) is legal, it's certainly not moral. It’s not what we want our governments to be doing.
C: Coming back to the beginning, Manitoba has gone in the direction Skimming Off the Top advocates. Ontario has promised it. Putting your fortune teller’s turban on, will Ontario follow through? Does Premier Doug Ford get what's at stake here?
BD: I can't read his mind, but there is evidence he will. The Conservatives specifically mentioned competitive tendering, in the Throne Speech. Typically, that’s an indication they're committed to it. And, frankly, I haven't heard a good case for closed tendering. I'm still waiting for it, and I haven't seen it. So, I think they've sort of said, "If there is no good case, why are we continuing this? It's time to change it. It would be better for the province, better for the workers, and we'd get more bang for our infrastructure dollar." So, I think that's a good sign.
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