Better Together

Just over a year ago The Canadian Business Journal conducted an exclusive interview with executives from The Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) about a number of comprehensive projects taking place nationwide.

CLAC has 25 national Locals and about 58,000 members in Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan and also the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Yukon. We recently reconnected with Executive Director Dick Heinen and Alberta Director Wayne Prins to get an update on the union’s activities over the past 12 months.

Topping the list of exciting news is the recent launch of the CLAC Career Development College in Edmonton, which as of February became fully accredited by the Alberta government. The primary purpose of the college is to help members develop skills that will allow them to work in a different sector, with individuals earning a certified diploma at the successful conclusion of their training.

“We anticipate that it will be very successful. Our job is to keep people working and to connect them with the contractors who need help,” Prins says.

A primary function of the college will be to optimize the employability of CLAC members whether it’s essential skills development or standard industry training as a means to allow them to diversify on the number of jobs they would be qualified to work on. Such a magnificent resource is even more appreciated during a period of contraction.

Following a decade of profound expansion and rapid activity both Heinen and Prins explained there were a number of inefficiencies that crept into the national system. By global comparison, it’s no secret that Canada as a whole had been lagging in industrial productivity and so a concerted industry-wide effort has been made towards promoting the productivity initiative. In fact, several years ago the executives from CLAC were invited to take part in an industry leaders’ roundtable on productivity, sponsored by the Construction Owners Association of Alberta (COAA). The purpose of the group was to really dig into the root causes of the productivity issue and augment methods of improving it. The motto of the industry is Twice as Safe, Twice as Productive by 2020. CLAC is a part of that core group at the leadership level.

“Whatever learnings come out of that group, we’ll bring that to the membership with the purpose of contributing to the industry becoming more globally competitive,” Prins says. “Productivity is essential across all business sectors.”

Facing Challenges Head-on

Endowed with an incredibly strong presence in the construction industry there’s nothing like an economic downturn in the commodities cycle to test the true nature of the character of an organization, but CLAC is holding up to the challenge exceptionally well. The union has performed admirably during such a tough economic situation and much of the success in navigating through that bumpy course can be attributed to strong leadership, which has managed to keep the layoffs to a minimum.

“What we’re trying to do in anticipation of a slower period of new construction in the next few years is that we are positioning ourselves to grow our market share in the maintenance and turnaround work,” Prins offers.

The executives at CLAC have been striving to display to both industry and its members that a responsible approach to these types of downturns is what serves everybody’s best interests. Seizing that positive attitude into collective bargaining and reviewing current contracts, even mid-contract and making prudent decisions with balanced reactions, becomes all the more necessary to combat a dramatic shift within the labour front from coast to coast.

The most substantial individual project involving CLAC members over the past year is the colossal $8.3 billion Site C dam project in British Columbia. The major venture is spearheaded by B.C. Hydro with CLAC being front and centre in the handling of the dirt work. The final product will result in a large-scale earth fill hydroelectric dam on the Peace River and will contribute $3.2 billion to the provincial gross domestic product (GDP) and $130 million to the local communities.

“We have a good portion of the Site C work in British Columbia with PetroWest, which is great news because it’s rather slow otherwise in Alberta and B.C.,” Heinen says.

The contract’s duration is anticipated to run eight years, with the dam expected to be in production by the year 2024. About 1,500 people, including many CLAC members, will be working on the main project at the peak of construction and it will create about 8,000 person-years of man-hour employment. Once finished, Site C will provide clean, reliable and affordable electricity for more than 100 years with the ability to power electricity to the equivalent of about 450,000 homes per year.

“We anticipate very large CLAC work for us there for the next eight years,” Prins remarks. “No doubt many of those workers will be members who previously worked in the resource sector in Alberta and B.C.”

Additionally, CLAC executives are doing what they can to push forward with the LNG opportunities by attending meetings with various owners and stakeholders to see if that segment of the resources industry can be fast-tracked. Despite a slow bureaucratic process, Heinen is optimistic that the LNG opportunities are moving in the right direction with all the main players continuing to talk.

Freedom of Association

A fundamental difference between CLAC and many other traditional trade unions is that there is no pressure on workers to promise exclusivity. It’s an ideology based on a principle known as Freedom of Association. Having such an open approach differentiates CLAC from the others and is greatly appreciated by the membership.

“It does work in our favour in the sense that we don’t have any restrictions on allowing our members to go working anywhere else,” Heinen says. “People have to put bread on their table; they have to eat and so if they can find a job in a non-union world, we say go for it. When we have work again, we hope they will come back to us.”

“It remains one of our core values that never changes,” Prins confirms. “I would suggest that in a time like this the value of that type of principle becomes even more evident to the membership because each person and family has to make decisions that are best for their own situation. We do everything in our control to preserve employment and do what’s best for each member.”

The nature of the industry is that it fluctuates rapidly from one project to another. Prins estimates that they are likely down about 15-20% overall compared with last year, and while that seems like a jarring number, the truth is that CLAC has proven to be far more resilient in being able to keep many of their workers on the jobs than most any other trade unions.

“While it’s a bit slow right now, it’s nowhere near as bad as 2008,” Heinen says. “The downturn that we are having is quite localized in a sense that it’s really affecting the energy sector in the west but Ontario is still doing very well.”

A primary source of concern is that the previous wealth of backlogged projects has diminished. For the past decade there has always been a long list of projects coming down the pike. Today there are fewer projects being engineered and there’s very little talk about a great deal of capital being made available for expansion or upgrades.

“We’re not dealing with a catastrophe yet, but the next few years are looking like a significant challenge, especially in the industrial sector,” Prins candidly states.

Both Heinen and Prins take a great deal of pride in how well CLAC responds in more difficult times. It’s easy to be a good union when things are great and the economy is churning on all cylinders. But it’s a test of character when the economy is sluggish resulting in financial pressures that includes companies looking for trimmed budgets or contracts. It’s about promoting cooperation, not confrontation.

“One of our fundamental principles is we’re a partnership in the business world. We work with the companies to make sure everybody can make a good living,” Heinen states.

Success through Diversification

A conscientious internal effort is in place to undertake everything possible in order to expand capacity and ensure each one of CLAC’s collective agreements is competitive for the available work. In fact, Prins believes that if CLAC responds appropriately it will provide an opportunity to actually grow its market share, which would mean not only preserving current employment levels, but expanding upon them.

In addition to its vast presence in construction, CLAC has also made inroads into other business sectors including healthcare, food services, transportation, retail and manufacturing. Another internal initiative is to ensure members are provided with the support they need in order to have those necessary transferable skills.

Solidifying contract initiatives such as pipeline development most often gets tied up in endless bureaucratic red tape. CLAC executives have written letters and had several meetings to voice their support and encouragement to get these projects moving. But when the bureaucratic process is not reliable it adds to the uncertainty and that in turn can scare capital away, which doesn’t serve anybody’s interests.

CLAC is also in absolute support of rigorous reviews of such massive energy projects. But delays inevitably bring about a pronounced degree of uncertainty in the market, which in turn begins to drive owners away from capital spends within the industry. It’s at this point when it becomes quite evident that the system is failing.

The expansive Energy East pipeline certainly remains high on everyone’s radar screen, with hopes that the go-ahead will infuse work into New Brunswick as they expand their port and storage facilities, although the timeline could still be a ways off. As Heinen notes, it’s simply the nature of today’s economic climate.

Infrastructure Funding

Infrastructure spending by the federal government is the Liberals’ biggest single policy response to the dramatic changes in the Canadian economy. The question on many people’s minds is how the $125 billion will be divided amongst the provinces and municipalities, each of whom have long been lobbying Ottawa to assist in the funding for essential upgrades to roads and bridges along with ensuring all Canadians have safe drinking water.

Between funding resources that will be made available from allocated federal and provincial infrastructure money, Heinen anticipates CLAC members will pick up a significant portion of the work. These are projects that must happen regardless of the state of the economy. During an economic downturn, spending more on infrastructure is one way for governments to boost employment and get more money flowing into the economy.

“Our members have done the Anthony Henday Drive project in Edmonton and portions of the Calgary Ring Road so we certainly do have the expertise and the wherewithal and I expect we’ll be involved in the infrastructure builds,” he says.

A troublesome condition for Heinen and CLAC centres on the regions that have exclusive agreements with the building trades. For example, infrastructure money that goes into the Greater Toronto Area has a very difficult time in trickling down to CLAC contractors. A recent study on the competitiveness of construction in Ontario found that where there were exclusive agreements in place it resulted in notably more expensive construction costs than in other regions.

Beyond 2016

Prins has primarily been based out of Fort MacMurray for the past 12 years but is now beginning the process of transitioning into an exciting, challenging new role. In fact, he’s been tabbed to take over as CLAC’s Executive Director replacing Dick Heinen who is gradually moving himself towards retirement after 48 years with the union.

Heinen had originally targeted this September for his retirement but it was decided it would be most helpful if stayed on to ensure a smooth transition and also allow Prins the time to complete his MBA from Queen’s University. It’s expected Heinen will now stay on until April, 2017.

“He’s been a leader with CLAC for a number of years and is a natural to take over,” Heinen says of his soon-to-be successor.

In the next three to five years Prins would like to see CLAC workers engaged to an even greater degree regarding enhanced sector diversification. In Alberta, CLAC has continued to diversify its business interests and last year organized a very large warehouse in Edmonton associated with a grocery store chain. In the Prairies CLAC is now attempting to organize a new series of grocery stores. In B.C. there have been a few examples of diversification into new service sector units.

“To make a meaningful impact to branch out from construction takes a great deal of organizing and is a work in progress.” Prins says.

“Certainly the healthcare sector, particularly in Ontario, continues to grow and it has been a growth field for us for quite some time,” Heinen adds.

At a recent gathering of close to 300 CLAC stewards Ontario’s labour minister, the Honourable Kevin Flynn, delivered a message on the importance of healthy and safe workplaces and thanked CLAC for helping as an industry leader. Such acknowledgment provides a great source of pride for Heinen and his leadership team.

“I thought that was great recognition,” Heinen says. “The training centre in Ontario has done a very good job in taking up the challenge, especially the Working at Heights program, which is something we developed. All of our training centres across the country have a focus on safety. We want people to go home in the same condition as they went to work.”

In addition to Edmonton, CLAC has main training centres in Langley, B.C., Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and Cambridge, Ontario along with numerous satellite training facilities in other regions as well as a new office in Calgary.

“I want to be here a couple of years from now and see how we did and did we follow through on who we are and what our principles are and what the value proposition is for us. Did we continue to partner and grow and keep the bulk of our members working,” Heinen forwardly envisions. “I have a lot of confidence that we’re going to do just fine, but our mettle will be tested.”