Energy Minister Bill Bennett asked members of the B.C. legislature last week to honour those who helped construct the province's major hydroelectric dams, introducing in the House four men who decades ago built the projects "that have given us the quality of life that we all take for granted here in the province."
The B.C. Liberal government first celebrated the "power pioneers" in 2010, when then-premier Gordon Campbell announced the revival of plans to build the Site C dam. The province chartered five aircraft to bring 120 of these now silver-haired builders to stand in the shadow of the W.A.C. Bennett dam. They were there to help Mr. Campbell remind British Columbians of the legacy of these megaprojects that built the province and its economy.
These four power pioneers who helped build the power projects were in Victoria to lambaste Mr. Bennett for his management of Site C – which is likely the province's last major dam.
After the introductions in the House, the four men met privately with the Energy Minister to remind him that B.C.'s major dam projects have been successful in part because of the labour peace that was negotiated for the duration of construction.
It was the champion of free enterprise, W.A.C. Bennett, who concluded that his ambition for damming the Peace and Columbia rivers was too big and too important to risk labour disruption. He created the model that saw the massive projects built without strikes.
The history of B.C.'s hydro dam construction is detailed in the book Harnessing the Power, Voices from Two Rivers. Author Meg Stanley noted that W.A.C. Bennett fretted about the cost of building hydroelectric dams and was worried the economics could be derailed by labour disruptions. To avoid that, he oversaw the creation of the Allied Hydro Council representing all the trade unions, which in turn signed a single contract that promised no strikes and no lockouts.
The first contract was signed in 1962 and it became the labour blueprint for building major hydro dams in the province.
But B.C. Hydro says that won't happen on the $8.8-billion Site C project – they envision an open shop site where multiple contractors will each bring in their own workers on their own terms.
Jack Whittaker was a heavy-equipment operator working on the W.A.C. Bennett dam.
He tried to impress upon the Energy Minister that a projectwide labour agreement would deliver the most reliable results for B.C. Hydro today. "It was a success story – millions and millions of hours without a work stoppage."
Mr. Bennett was not moved by Mr. Whittaker and his companions.
After their meeting, he repeated his message to reporters: The project has to be open for bidding by non-union contractors to keep the cost down. There will be no common wages across the construction site.
B.C. Hydro wants to have the first wave of work crews on the ground by July – there is a narrow seasonal window to begin the first stage of construction. Legal challenges by Site C opponents that begin on Monday in B.C. Supreme Court could create delay, but even if Hydro is allowed to proceed, there are still few details locked down.
The Crown corporation has only signed off on one small contract – for clearing the south bank – and even that was delayed because the early bids were rejected.
Hydro expects to start awarding more of the early contracts in the coming months, including site preparation for the north bank, clearing contracts and building the workers' accommodations. The main civil works contract is expected to be awarded later this year.
With all those contracts still up in the air, in theory the Allied Hydro Council still has time to try to change Mr. Bennett's mind.
Tom Sigurdson, head of the B.C. and Yukon Territory Building and Construction Trades Council, is leading the campaign.
He said some progress was made last week when Mr. Bennett agreed to at least look at some kind of common language around working conditions across the job site.
But it is clear both B.C. Hydro and the minister responsible for the project have dug in.
Taxpayers paid $360,000 to trot out the power pioneers in 2010 for the Site C photo opportunity with Gordon Campbell. But the government would rather those celebrated builders stayed silent about their experience about how to get the job done right.