04/16/2015 04:08 EDT | Updated 07/01/2015 03:59 EDT

Former dam workers say $9-billion Site C project should be union-built

VICTORIA - Veteran workers who built some of British Columbia's most iconic megaprojects raised concerns in Victoria Thursday about who is going to build the $9-billion Site C hydroelectric dam in the province's northeast.

Seventy-eight-year-old Jack Whittaker said when he worked on the W.A.C. Bennett Dam near Hudson's Hope more than 50 years ago every builder was a union member.

He said that won't be the case for Site C because the government and BC Hydro favour an open site, hiring union and non-union workers.

"I was on the W.A.C. Bennett dam in 1964. Everybody was union on that job," he said. "I was in the International Union of Operating Engineers. I was an equipment operator."

Whittaker is the co-founder of Nanaimo-based Hazelwood Construction Services, a company known for road-and-bridge building projects and a skilled unionized workforce.

Whittaker was one of a half-dozen former B.C. dam workers who met with Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett and Labour Minister Shirley Bond to discuss the proposed labour force.

He said the open-shop approach could delay the project and escalate costs, as workers and companies continuously haggle over wages and working conditions.

"I'm not here as a contractor or a building tradesman," he said. "I'm here as a concerned citizen of B.C. because they are going to escalate that job. They are going to extend the time frame. They are saying 10 years. They'll be lucky to do it in 15 years if they do it open shop because it will be chaos."

Last December, Premier Christy Clark officially approved the Site C project, calling it a historic milestone that will be felt for a century.

The dam will be the third on the Peace River, flooding an 83-kilometre stretch of valley near Fort St. John. It has been part of B.C.'s long-range energy options since 1958.

First Nations and environmental groups denounced it immediately as "incredibly stupid," and a project "that will go down as the most expensive mistake in B.C.'s history."

Last month, the B.C. and Yukon Territory Building and Construction Trades Council filed a suit in B.C. Supreme Court, alleging BC Hydro's open-shop plans violate the charter because they limit union activities.

Building-trades executive director Tom Sigurdson and the veteran workers met with Bennett and Bond, but they left disappointed when the government did not offer hope of changing the labour plans for Site C.

"Foolish," was how Whittaker described the government's open-shop model.

Bennett said unions are welcome at Site C, but ensuring the project is completed on time and on budget is the government's primary objective.

"Our belief and hydro's belief is the project labour-agreement approach that Mr. Sigurdson would like to take would actually drive the cost of the project up," he said.