British Columbia’s trades unions are seeing the federal government’s purchase of the Trans Mountain Pipeline project as an opportunity for their members.

Skilled tradespeople in British Columbia believe Canada's federal government will have to be a more accountable employer for the controversial Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion energy project than Texas-based Kinder Morgan.

Kinder Morgan’s plans indicated it would hire or contract thousands of construction workers across Alberta and BC to expand the pipeline. But BC union leaders criticized the company for not hiring their members, who they argue are the most highly trained and qualified, and instead choosing to contract with companies using both union and non-union construction workers.

The International Union of Operating Engineers, which has provided labour for the majority of National Energy Board approved pipeline projects in the last 60 years, has argued that Kinder Morgan’s approach would be detrimental to the quality and safety of the pipeline project, which is already a controversial venture. With the federal takeover, the group is hopeful that will change.

Goretti Guilbault has worked as an operating engineer for 10 years, having become a journeyperson and contributed to pipeline projects in the past. Throughout her career, she’s become an advocate for more equitable hiring within the skilled trades, especially for women, whom she mentors.

“I live here, I work here, I play here and I want to be a part of this,” she said. A government commitment, she said, could “ensure women, Indigenous people, and apprentices get work,” in the trades, she told the Star newspaper.

Brian Cochrane, business manager of the operating engineers union, said the BC Building Trades — the umbrella organization for construction unions in the province — wants to work with the federal government to form labour agreements that would see Canada use the pipeline as an opportunity to train and develop Western Canada’s construction workforce.

“We want to ensure that our membership and the pipeline trades are engaged in the project,” Cochrane told the Star. “The federal government is going to have a higher obligation to make sure that the Canadian workforce is going to be the one to benefit,” he said, especially because the project is under intense scrutiny.

It’s not yet clear whether the change of ownership will have an impact on who works on the pipeline, and what their working conditions will be. Trans Mountain has existing contracts with companies, some of which have collective agreements with the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC), a union that isn’t a member of the BC Building Trades.

A statement from the federal finance department said the project would continue to be managed day-to-day by the people already working on the pipeline. The project is expected to come under the ownership of the Canada Development Investment Corporation in August.

Meanwhile, the statement said, managers of the project will have to “take on the people who are integral to the actual completion of the project.”

Ryan Bruce, of CLAC, said the union expects those future workers to be CLAC members, because of collective agreements already in place. He expects the project to add 4,000 CLAC jobs.

“It’s the collective agreements themselves that establish the rules for our members,” Bruce said, adding it was too soon to say if anything would change for CLAC workers themselves due to the change in ownership.

Overall, Bruce said the union “felt good” about the federal government purchase, because it removed uncertainty about the pipeline getting built, even if he thought the money could have gone into other significant infrastructure projects.

Bruce and Cochrane both said the temporary nature of the pipeline jobs isn’t an issue — construction jobs are temporary by nature, and it’s better work experience for their members to work on a major project.

img: BC Building Trades