Lawyers for the government sought to have case over requirements that employees join unions to work on public projects moved to B.C. Labour Relations Board instead of the courts.
Lawyers squared off in court Wednesday over the issue of how best to proceed with a legal challenge to a labour agreement of the NDP government that critics say favours B.C.’s trade unions.
A coalition including contractors and building associations has filed a petition in B.C. Supreme Court seeking to strike down the government’s labour framework for building public infrastructure projects.
The framework calls for workers on public projects such as the new Pattullo Bridge to become members of affiliated trade unions, a move that the coalition claims is illegal and unconstitutional.
Lawyers involved in the case appeared in B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver on Wednesday to deal with an application involving a jurisdictional issue.
Government lawyers argued that the case involved private contractual issues and was best handled by the B.C. Labour Relations Board, an independent tribunal with a mandate to mediate and adjudicate employment and labour issues.
The move was supported by lawyer Charles Gordon, who is representing union interests in the case.
“We think that this matter should be heard at the Labour Relations Board, that the Labour Relations Board has proper jurisdiction,” Gordon said during a break in the proceedings Wednesday.
“It involves labour relations and the Labour Relations Board has proper jurisdiction over matters involving labour relations.”
Gordon said a number of other similar cases, including one recent one in Manitoba, that have been challenged in the courts have resulted in matters being referred to labour relations boards.
“So there’s a pretty strong precedent that it should be at the board.”
Peter Gall, who is representing the petitioners, said outside court that what the government wants is effectively a full trial, which could take years to get to, or to have it handled by the Labour Relations Board.
“Both arguments are designed to prevent the court from dealing with it now,” said Gall.
The Vancouver lawyer said that instead of being a contractual issue, the petition was in fact a challenge to the transportation minister’s decision to impose the union requirement.
“We say it’s illegal,” he said. “It’s for an illegal purpose, to reward (the government’s) friends.”
Gall added that the focus of the petition was on the exercise of statutory powers by the minister, not on any contract.
“And exercise of the statutory power is not within the jurisdiction of the labour board. They don’t deal with whether a minister’s decision is legal or illegal.”
The transportation ministry said in an email statement that it understood the court hearing was only to determine whether the matter should continue through the traditional court system or whether another venue may be more appropriate.
“As this matter is before the courts, we can’t comment further, but government stands behind the principles of the Community Benefits Agreement to deliver good paying jobs, enhanced training, more apprenticeships and more opportunities for Indigenous people, women and youth around the province.”
The hearing before B.C. Supreme Court Justice Christopher Giaschi is expected to continue until Friday, after which the judge will likely reserve judgment.
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