An independent voice of labour for 65 years

By Rajitha Sivakumaran

CLACUnions and trades go hand in hand, but many Canadians are unaware of the deep history behind independent unions in Canada. The rise of unions not affiliated with any labour federations is a story about fighting the norm of labour unions rooted in Marxist ideology.

In the 1940s and 1950s, following the devastation of WWII, European immigrants arrived in Canada looking for a fresh start, work opportunities, and a new place to call home. Entering the workplace, they experienced a system of trade unionism that was different from the union plurality of continental Europe, where unions were based on and formed according to a number of different ideologies, explained Dick Heinen, Executive Director of the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC).

In Europe, workers can pick between the Socialist union, the Marxist union, the Catholic union, the Christian union, and everything in between. Most workplaces feature multi-union representation. Canadian unionized workplaces, however, were predominantly based on a Marxist mentality at that time. According to David Prentice, CLAC’s Provincial Director for B.C., the Canadian system was modelled after the UK, which was very different from the rest of Europe.

“When these people from Europe came to Canada, they were used to a similar type of trade unionism. However, they found themselves in a system in which there is one union to a workplace based on the plurality of votes,” Heinen said.

And this caused a stir. Workers wanted to be represented by a union that reflected their own ideologies and beliefs about what work is and what the relationship between the employer and employee should be. This rejection of the norm planted the seeds for the arrival of independent unions like CLAC.

CLAC is the nation’s largest independent, multi-sector, national union, with more than 60,000 members. It has successfully negotiated 6,000-plus collective agreements since being founded in 1952. In the last 65 years, CLAC has established 15 member centres across Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and B.C., and serves 13 industries, including construction, healthcare and transportation.

CLAC is a significant player in healthcare in Ontario and represents over 7,000 individuals working in this sector. In Alberta, it has a large footprint in the construction industry, a presence it has been cultivating since the early 1980s. “It really started to pick up in the late 1980s and into the 1990s primarily because there was so much disruption within the construction industry,” said Heinen. CLAC became an alternative for a lot of people who were dissatisfied with the mainline unions.

In the 2000s, CLAC became a significant supplier of labour in the oil sands in Fort McMurray. Prentice attributes the organization’s heavy presence in the oil sands to its wall-to-wall construction model. CLAC includes all construction trades under one collective agreement rather than representing select trades groups separately. Combined with the union’s emphasis on building a partnership relationship with the employer, this approach leads to increased productivity and greater success in completing projects on time and on budget.

Before entering the oil sands, CLAC tested this model on a number of projects, which turned out to be huge successes. “And that opened up the opportunity for an alternative union like CLAC to come into the oil sands. In the last 10 to 15 years, we have been building at least half of the oil sands construction projects,” Prentice said.

CLAC’s presence in B.C. grew to great new heights with the arrival of the 2010 Winter Olympics. The infrastructure development around this major event—the Sea-to-Sky Highway, Sky Train LRT, Convention Centre, and Olympic Oval—gave CLAC the opportunity to be involved in major projects. CLAC represented over 1,300 workers to build the Port Mann Bridge, a project that has been highlighted in Popular Mechanics as one of the top 25 most impressive megaprojects globally.

CLAC’s Priorities: Creating Benefits and Resolving Labour Issues
With training centres located across the country, CLAC offers top-tiered training programs that allow its members to specialize in more than one craft. Some folks, Prentice explained, who are trained in carpentry, will be a carpenter for their whole life, but there isn’t always enough work to go around. This is why some CLAC trades, like carpenters for example, also have other trade tickets, which allows them to move from carpentry to other trades and stay on a project longer.

Traditional unions in the construction industry are craft-based and have very strict policies on what particular crafts can do. For example, carpenters have their own craft union. “The minute that there is no carpentry work they’re kind of stuck,” Heinen said. “Because we have this wall-to-wall approach, which is an all-employee bargaining unit, people can be trained in a multiple number of trades and stay gainfully employed the whole time.”

One of the biggest labour issues that CLAC has been working on resolving is access to work. According to Prentice, access to work can be limited in the larger public infrastructure realm. “CLAC is continually advocating with industry, stakeholders and government to make sure that everyone can bid on these projects,” he said.

Heinen elaborated on the historical approach to work. “Traditionally, there have been agreements between cities, governments and large public corporations that all construction work would be done by a group of people that were affiliated with those traditional building trade unions,” he explained, adding that not opening up the bidding process has been costing clients millions of dollars in extra costs. Heinen says that there are a lot of people who are capable of doing quality construction work who are not affiliated with the mainline building trades unions.

Other priorities for CLAC include helping under-represented groups, like First Nations and women in construction, get access to training that can lead to employment. As a voice for labour, CLAC is committed to removing barriers to employment for everyone who calls Canada home.