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Workers from the labour movement helped build the W.A.C. Bennett Dam, on the Peace River near Hudson’s Hope, B.C.Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Update: B.C. Premier Christy Clark has intervened to change BC Hydro's policy on this matter.

BC Hydro's bid to impose a new labour model on the Site C megaproject is being challenged in court by the unions that have managed the work force on all the Crown corporation's large projects over the past five decades.

By switching to an open-shop format that would prohibit union organizing on the province's biggest public infrastructure project in history, BC Hydro says it will promote work-force stability and assure contractors access to the largest pool of skilled and experienced workers.

But Tom Sigurdson, executive director of the B.C. and Yukon Territory Building and Construction Trades Council, said BC Hydro is jeopardizing the project by abandoning a labour-management model that has served the province well by ensuring no strikes and a well-organized supply of skilled workers.

"We were amazed – it was such a departure from the labour agreements we have had for decades," he said Monday. "We told them we couldn't make their project work under their proposed model."

On Monday, his 35,000-member organization filed a civil suit in B.C. Supreme Court seeking to block BC Hydro's "managed open site" plan on the grounds that it violates the federal Charter of Rights.

Starting with the W.A.C. Bennett dam on the Peace River in 1963, BC Hydro has built its major projects with a labour agreement that ensures no strikes and no lockouts. Non-union contractors can bid on the work, but they must use union labour.

Under the new model that Hydro has adopted for Site C, contractors can bring in non-union workers and the unions would be prohibited from organizing those workers or trying to "poach" them to join unionized projects.

"BC Hydro's labour approach for Site C is to create an inclusive environment that allows for participation from all labour groups and contractors regardless of union affiliation or union status," Susan Yurkovich, Hydro's executive vice-president, said in a statement Monday.

The Site C dam project is currently pegged at $8.8-billion and BC Hydro has said it must begin construction early this summer to avoid major delays on the project, which would provide enough electricity to meet about 8 per cent of the province's energy needs.

Philip Hochstein, president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of B.C., applauded Hydro's approach.

"The craft unions are trying to recreate a model that may have worked 60 years ago but is no longer relevant," he said, adding that fewer than one in five construction workers in B.C. currently belongs to a union.

But the trade council argues, in court documents filed in B.C. Supreme Court, that the Crown corporation is interfering in the rights of workers under the charter.

"Quite frankly we see that as a substantial interference in the rights of workers who are going to be working there to negotiate with our unions if they choose," said Mr. Sigurdson.

The alliance between the trade unions and the BC Liberal government on skills training, which was aimed at providing a trained work force for liquefied natural gas projects, had weakened the Opposition NDP's traditional platform as the voice for organized labour.

But Mr. Sigurdson said he could not get any support from the BC Liberal government on this issue, suggesting that alliance may be short-lived.

The BC Liberal government, which has forged a skills-training agenda hand in hand with the building trades unions, says it will not interfere with its Crown corporation's handling of the labour question.

"I'm assured by BC Hydro that they have a model that will supply the work force that they need and that's what matters to me," Jobs Minister Shirley Bond said.

NDP Leader John Horgan said the BC Liberals have made a mistake by allowing BC Hydro to try to change the labour agreements that have applied to past projects.

"When you see the build trades going to court on a project that they have been wanting for decades, clearly there is something wrong," he said.

"The Liberals are going to have to fix this."