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B.C. Premier Christy Clark says BC Hydro went “a step too far” with plans to curb organized labour’s involvement in the building of the $8.8-billion Site C dam project.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Premier Christy Clark says BC Hydro went too far in its bid to curb union powers for the construction of Site C, the biggest public infrastructure project in the province's history.

The council of building trade unions launched a lawsuit against BC Hydro on Monday, after almost a year of fruitless behind-the-scenes negotiations that included outreach to the Premier's office.

That court action succeeded in getting her attention: Ms. Clark told reporters Tuesday she has instructed the Crown corporation's chief executive officer, Jessica McDonald, to change the contract terms to allow unions to organize at the construction site.

The Premier's intervention comes just weeks before bids are due to close on the first large contract for the $8.8-billion dam.

"I think BC Hydro took this a step too far," Ms. Clark told reporters. "I'm going to get it fixed."

The Premier said she took action once she learned of the lawsuit. "In the last 24 hours, I've spoken to ministers, and I've spoken to the CEO of Hydro, they agree with me on that. They are going to rework the proposal to withdraw that part of it because I believe [unions] should have the right to organize. They do have the right to organize, and BC Hydro can't take that away."

Starting with the W.A.C. Bennett dam on the Peace River in 1963, BC Hydro has built its major projects using labour agreements that ensured no strikes and no lockouts. Non-union contractors could bid on the work, but workers had to belong to one of the building trade unions.

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

Tom Sigurdson, executive director of the B.C. and Yukon Territory Building and Construction Trades Council, welcomed the Premier's intervention on Tuesday, but said the lawsuit won't be withdrawn until the contract terms are rewritten.

"I'm grateful that we had her intervention," he said in an interview. "We are not there yet. We have got to sit down with Hydro and have some meaningful dialogue."

The unions were told last April that BC Hydro intended to adopt a new open-shop model for Site C. Mr. Sigurdson said his efforts to persuade the Premier's office, ministers of cabinet and Hydro brass had achieved nothing, prompting the lawsuit.

On Tuesday, Ms. Clark agreed with the union's position that the right to join a union is protected under the law, and said she told BC Hydro it could not stipulate such a restriction in its contracts. "I don't believe that's legal; I don't believe that is right," she said.

The Premier has been working with Mr. Sigurdson and his affiliated trade unions on several initiatives related to skills training and liquefied natural gas. She said that relationship is a valuable one.

"We need to recognize that the building trades are a really important part of building the province." She did not go so far as to order BC Hydro to return to its former model for labour agreements, however.

"It may still go to court and we may still have an argument on the rest of it. I know the union would prefer a closed shop, but we are not a government of closed shops, and never have been."

Still, it is a rebuke of BC Hydro management, which until now had pursued this strategy with the tacit blessing of the B.C. Liberal government. On Monday, Jobs Minister Shirley Bond indicated she had accepted the Crown corporation's defence of its plan.

"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," Ms. Bond said then.

NDP jobs critic Shane Simpson said Tuesday that Hydro has no choice but to backtrack because the proposed measure was illegal. However, he said, the bigger surprise is that it took until now to figure that out. "What on earth was going on for almost 11 months? Surely the government knew what BC Hydro was doing."

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