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The Collapse of a Monopoly in British Columbia

January 1, 1987 -

How times have changed. It seems only yesterday that companies, governments and unions happily made common cause and signed collective agreements with no apparent regard for the long-term health of the economy and society. Some of the most wasteful and costly practices were blithely incorporated into agreements. After all, those costs could simply be passed on to the customers. Even more serious was the utter disregard with which the freedom of workers was signed away, all for the sake of peace (and monopoly) on construction jobsites.

How well I remember the frustration and even anguish of workers who ran afoul of unions, for the union's business agents did not hesitate to use their control over jobs to teach "troub1emakers" a lesson. I also remember the disdain with which some employers greeted our protests: "That's the way it is; there's nothing we can do. Anyway, it's all quite lawful."

Since those irresponsible days of the 1960s and 1970s the reality of the marketplace has hit home. At the recent annual meeting of the Amalgamated Construction Association of British Columbia, Atlanta lawyer McNeill Stokes claimed to be "stunned" at the rate of nonunion growth in British Columbia's construction industry. "It's not just a market erosion," he said. "You're in the middle of a traditional collapse of a monopoly."

According to Stokes, buyers of construction services are now selecting nonunion contractors because they want to break up the long-standing union monopoly. This is why many B.C. companies are looking for ways to escape their obligations under existing collective agreements. But the route of establishing a nonunion company ("double- breasting") is foreclosed by existing B.C labour legislation. Vancouver lawyer Ben Trevino advised construction contractors to seek legislative changes to be sold to politicians and the public on the basis of their benefits to workers. He argued that the exclusion of workers from jobsites because of their union or nonunion status is a form of discrimination, and that "prohibiting a contractor from double-breasting isn't treating him equally to a union tradesman, who can 'tuck his card in his shoe' and work for an open-shop company" (Journal of Commerce, November 17, 1986).

We are witnessing in the construction industry a seesaw battle between companies and unions, with temporary "victory" going to those who happen to have the most market power. In times of economic prosperity, unions dominate; in a less prosperous environment, companies can and do try to rid themselves of unions and their obligations under collective agreements. How much better it would be if, whether times were good or bad, both companies and unions would exercise self-restraint and conclude collective agreements that would promote the long-term health of the economy and the real interest of all workers. Let's hope that the current hard times will teach some sorely needed lessons.