Labour unions have been an integral part of the Canadian landscape for decades and have traditionally championed the cause of serving as official organizations for workers in coming together to achieve common goals.
Throughout the years the role of the labour union has been to protect the rights of workers in such areas as health and welfare, the improvement of safety standards, attaining fair and equitable wages for services rendered, developing training programs and ensuring improved working conditions are implemented by employers.
However, some unions seem to be caught in too many of the old traditional methods of bargaining and negotiating with employers and it’s caused a notable decline in trust and acceptance by many of the very workers they are intended to benefit and support through leadership and guidance.
The growing divide between workers and traditional union policies has led to a new entity known as Canada Works, an umbrella organization that was founded on the basis of developing direct collaboration of leading unions of all sizes who share a passion for advancing positive partnership labour relations between workers and management. It is this type of progressive thinking that is being viewed as the necessary response in keeping the labour movement relevant throughout the 21st century and beyond.
As part of its fundamental core mission statement, Canada Works believes the progressive union movement must actively participate with all stakeholders in shaping future legislation and public policy to the betterment of workers, and to society at large, in what is now a far different work environment compared to those original days when unions first began to take hold in this country in the 1950s.
At the helm of Canada Works is Executive Director Ken Baerg, a man with many years of experience in spearheading multiple union endeavours. He brings with him a wealth of knowledge and experience and began his career as a CLAC representative right out of university after completing his undergrad in business and political science.
The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with Baerg and it was quickly apparent that he has had this line of career work in his blood from a young age.
“While I was in university I worked at a local grocery store in my hometown of Abbotsford and they had attempted to unionize several times through more traditional union channels. During my fourth year in university we had studied industrial relations and I got to know a little bit about alternate unions and CLAC in particular and I thought that sounded like a model I could get behind, that being a collaborative-based approach,” he begins.
Baerg introduced the concept to the 100 employees at the grocery store and in no time at all there were sufficient numbers of people who had signed up. The buy-in was rapid and an application was made to the labour board, the result of which was an official certified union.
“I thought the collaborative approach would be mirrored by management but it wasn’t and that led to protracted negotiations. It took almost a year to get the first collective agreement,” recalls Baerg.
In the course of his time at university and setting up the union at the grocery store he became acquainted with some of the leaders at CLAC. The union was duly impressed by Baerg and invited him to apply for a representative’s job within their organization.
“That was my unintentional entrée into the labour relations space. I was a representative there in multi-sectors from construction to healthcare, retail and everything in between,” he tells us.
Baerg spent 14 successful years at CLAC between 1994 and 2008 and through promotions he wound up as the regional and provincial director, leading affairs on an operational and strategic level. Despite making tremendous gains for the labour movement while at CLAC Baerg felt that 14 years was a considerable portion of a career and he wanted to branch out into other areas as a means of rounding experiencing other aspects of the business world. He left CLAC on positive terms and accepted a position with the Professional Contractors Association of Canada (PCAC) where he served as the provincial regional director from 2008 until 2010 with a primary mandate of establishing a footprint for that organization in B.C. PCAC is an association of contractors who are signatories to progressive unions, akin to an employers’ union.
About midway through 2010 Baerg received an unexpected tap on the shoulder from the City of Abbotsford and was asked if he was interested in taking on the role of director of economic development.
“After some soul-searching I decided I would take a very different direction and did that for two years,” he remarks.
It felt like a departure from the labor relations space for Baerg but he says there were a number of interesting similarities.
“Economic development is about attracting business and doing what you can to retain it and creating a favorable environment for businesses to thrive and for them to create jobs and to create a bigger tax base. In the progressive union space you try to take a blend of motivations and maximize the potential earnings for your membership on an economic level – that’s one of the goals of any union,” he says.
The Progressive Movement
The ideals and approach of the progressive union is markedly different that the traditional union philosophy in that it also takes into account the viability of the employer to secure work, and so there is a beneficial level of collaboration and trust that leads to maximizing earning potential for employees and still doing it with sensitivity to the market.
Following two years of working in an executive capacity at the City of Abbotsford, Baerg felt the public sector was not going to be a space that he was going to have a lifetime of patience for, and so he opted to resign in 2012 upon the completion of a number of projects he had undertaken.
It quickly became evident to Baerg that his next venture would be to embark on an initiative that got him back into the labour relations space. Upon that realization he decided to create an organization to support associations and sectoral unions with a view of furthering that progressive mindset of viable businesses creating good-paying jobs. The result was Canadian Works Strategies Inc., which is now in its sixth year of existence.
“What I am most passionate about is redefining and reclaiming what unionism can actually be. There is a debt of gratitude that is owed by workers and society at large to the traditional union movement for the historical battles that were fought. The traditional labour movement, in my view, hasn’t evolved over time. We need to make it relevant to the workers of today in a changing world economy,” he frankly states.
Statistical evidence would back up Baerg’s opinion where union density in the private sector has fallen by almost 50% over the past 50 years and in some sectors it’s even higher.
“We need to identify what has caused the drop-off in union membership and can the union movement do anything to redefine itself and reclaim workers’ interests and create advocacy models that are actually workable in today’s economy,” he explains.
Canada Works, which serves as an umbrella organization, was launched earlier this year to serve as a coalition of progressively-minded unions that have come together, or would like to come together, looking to make an even more substantial impact on labour relations. The primary function of this new organization is to knit together the progressive union movement and to speak to issues of common interests and those would include government relations, public policy, industry relations, training and membership development. Baerg says it is essential that Canada Works develops strong relationships with all regulatory agencies and government stakeholders at the municipal, provincial and federal levels.
“We’re an independent autonomous organization that believes on a principled level that labour and management should look for ways to work together to create a collaborative environment,” says Baerg.
“We have common interests in how legislation is shaped and formed; how the public policy discussion goes around relations issues and our reach to industry to ensure they know what the capacity is of the progressive union movement in the development of large construction projects. We want models that are not monopolistic or exclusive, but actually inclusive and allow all players to participate,” he continues.
Common sense dictates that there is a constructive and mutually beneficial way to conduct labour relations that will result in respecting the role of ownership and management as well as the contributions of labour. Aligning those interests has the ability to create economically viable, healthy workplaces and that is what Canada Works is aiming to achieve on all fronts.
Collaboration and Trust
Collaboration starts with a mindset and perspective or maybe even an understanding of the stakeholders in the labor relations space according to Baerg who strongly believes unions still have a lot to offer and he’s extremely excited about the possibilities moving forward.
The progressive union movement espouses an open-minded, fair approach and believes that employers are not inherently evil, as they are sometimes portrayed. In fact, through his vast experience, Baerg believes most employers have come to appreciate that a happy, engaged, well-compensated employee is going to enhance the overall benefit of any enterprise and the quality of its projects.
The process of sitting down together and hammering out a collective agreement still requires that assurances of consistent application of terms and conditions are met to everyone’s satisfaction. It is on this point where union leadership and experience is crucial to a fair and equitable outcome.
“I enthusiastically buy into the notion that labour and management can work together for everyone’s mutual success – it’s just a better way to do business,” he says.
Baerg has a unique resume whereby he can see things from both management’s side and the union’s perspective, having been employed on both sides of the fence during his career.
“Management needs to appreciate what labour brings to the table with regards to their skills and contributions and by the same token labour needs to appreciate that jobs just don’t come from the ether; often they are the result of an organization putting up risk capital, be it personal or organizational,” continues Baerg.
Maximizing Prosperity for All
In order for ownership and/or management to get what it requires for a successful venture does not mean employees have to lose, and vice versa. The aim of Canada Works is to blend the interests of each side and find common ground that benefits everyone – that’s what the progressive union movement seeks to achieve.
The immediate relevant focus for Canada Works is within the industrial, commercial and institutional construction space. It is in this realm where governments are talking about creating exclusive labour pacts with traditional labour and it’s where there is labour code legislation being contemplated that impacts how employees are organized.
“That’s a space where we have direct interest already by virtue of our members at CLAC and Canada West Construction Union (CWCU), who both have a large presence in construction. We’re certainly coming out of the gate being actively involved in discussions within that sector,” states Baerg.
No doubt some comparisons will be made between what Canada Works is becoming involved with and the Canadian Labour Congress. Certainly there are similarities in terms of form and structure. But there are notable differences.
“We have common interests and concerns. Our starting point is very different than the Canadian Labour Congress but in form and structure we aim to ensure that we are participating in the public policy and the legislative discussions, connecting with industry and telling the story of Canada Works and its progressive perspective on labour relations,” notes Baerg, who is confident that local, provincial and federal dialogue and negotiation is the space where Canada Works will be most effective.
“Individual unions are coming together under the Canada Works banner and saying we can engage in discussions with government bodies, the business community, the legal community and project owners to tell them the story of what the progressive union is all about when issues arise,” he says.
With the organization still in its infancy, Baerg has many items on the Canada Works agenda that he wants to accomplish by the end of this calendar year, such as being able to deliver the complete story of the progressive union movement to the working class so that government, industry and the legal community understand what Canada Works is all about.
Enormous multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects are being contemplated; some are privately funded, such as the Kinder Morgan (Trans Mountain) pipeline; and some are publicly-funded, such as the Cite C hydroelectric projects.
“We want to ensure that project owners and the government understand the value of open, inclusive tendering practices and that the perils of creating exclusive models around major construction projects and the benefits of actually having an open and inclusive model that allows all contractors to participate and all workers to participate regardless of union affiliation or lack thereof. Those debates are going on in real-time in both British Columbia and Alberta,” says Baerg.
In looking beyond this first year of setting the initial groundwork Baerg hopes to see tangible evidence of a continuous growing respect from industry leaders, each level of government and the various stakeholders that Canada Works will be a significant, influential voice of the labour relations movement moving forward.
“We understand that doesn’t come without a whole lot of work and focus to gain that sort of profile,” says Baerg. “It’s something we know we can achieve.”