Building Better Workplaces, Better Communities and Better Lives

Established in 1952, CLAC is widely known throughout Canada for promoting fair labour relations with a dignified sense of responsibility, stewardship and fairness guided by traditional Christian values. CLAC opposes the adversarial and monopolistic practices of the labour movement and as such the organization has garnered the respect and support of thousands of skilled tradespeople and corporate entities from coast to coast. CLAC consists of 26 national Locals and about 60,000 members in Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Yukon.

The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with Ian DeWaard, Ontario Provincial Director and Kevin Kohut, BC Provincial Director, about various current initiatives and future plans at CLAC, an independent national labour union that applies principles of social justice, respect and dignity to the workplace.

Both provincial directors have been long-tenured members of CLAC, with Kohut joining 21 years ago after owning his own small business. He wound up working at a company that was represented by CLAC and was eventually offered a job as a CLAC representative.

DeWaard has been with the organization for the past 18 years, and came equipped with an undergraduate’s degree in business. He followed that up with a co-op internship with the organization and has never left, moving his way up the ranks.

Labour Diversification

In addition to its vast presence and successes in construction and healthcare, CLAC also has a steady foothold in a number of other influential business industries including manufacturing, transportation, food services and retail. Internal procedures are in place to provide members with the support they need to ensure they possess as many transferable skills as possible, making them all the more attractive for employment purposes on a wider scale.

In Ontario alone CLAC has 8,000 members in healthcare, 5,000 in construction and 1,200 in emergency services as well as a smattering through manufacturing, clerical and transportation. On the construction side, the union works in all facets of industrial, commercial and institutional, residential and heavy civil.

“Of the CLAC operations across Canada we’re probably the most diverse,” begins DeWaard.

CLAC is wall-to-wall union, which means its members are working in all the trades including laborers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, etc.

“Under wall-to-wall agreements it means they work and negotiate their collective agreements together as a group with their employer, distinct from the craft model, which tends to negotiate provincially by craft or trade,” explains DeWaard.

The economy has been ascending in Ontario and it’s resulted in CLAC members having steady work. Membership has grown by about 8% a year for the past five years and that trend shows no sign of abating.

“A lot of our efforts and energy have gone into determining how we can serve our members in providing workforce development and connecting workers with job opportunities,” says DeWaard.

Equally as strong on the west coast CLAC has about 10,000 members, about half of whom are in construction including just over 1,000 at the prodigious multi-billion dollar Site C dam project working for the Peace River Hydro Partnership. The mammoth $10.7 billion venture is spearheaded by B.C. Hydro and CLAC is a significant part of the endeavour. 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.

The contract’s duration is anticipated to run eight years in total, with the dam expected to be in production by the year 2024. 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.

The executives at CLAC are also robustly pursuing a number of LNG opportunities by attending meetings with various owners and stakeholders to see if that segment of the resources industry can be fast-tracked. The Coastal GasLink pipeline project is one such project that continues to forge ahead. After more than six years of planning, hundreds of meetings with First Nations and an expenditure of some $400 million, the $4 billion project awaits a positive final investment decision (FID) from LNG Canada partners before putting shovels in the ground on the 670 km pipeline that will deliver gas to the $36 billion LNG Canada terminal at Kitimat, British Columbia. It’s a huge partnership that includes Shell, Petronas, KOGAS, Mitsubishi and PetroChina. CLAC is a major part of that infrastructure project as well.

“We are we are hearing that a final investment decision is coming,” offers Kohut.

The remaining 5,000 B.C. members are in business sectors such as manufacturing, healthcare, transportation and services, including Canuck Sports and Entertainment, previously known as Orca Bay Sports & Entertainment, which has about 1,700 CLAC members at the arena, which is home to the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks.

“A lot of what we’re doing out here in B.C. is similar to what Ian described for Ontario in terms of not just training but also promoting construction and the trades as a viable profession,” states Kohut. “In other parts of the world, including places like Germany, construction is held in high esteem much like we here in Canada would look at well-trained, skilled professionals. We are trying to promote the message in the schools as well.”

Education and Training

Schools are becoming more actively involved in preparing students about the tremendous career opportunities an organization such as CLAC can provide. Kohut, DeWaard and others spearhead efforts in promoting the concept that the trades are a viable profession, and not something you settle for.

As part of its commitment to a robust workforce development strategy CLAC established a partnership that involves running a school out of their headquarters in Cambridge, Ontario with 10,000-square feet dedicated to pre-trade training. There are a total of five different disciplines that young people – or people who are transitioning into construction – can sign up for as a means of learning new skills. Individuals go through 17-week programs and are outfitted with all the safety certificates and personal protective equipment (PPE) and tools that they’ll need to succeed on the job. The end result is having people who are equipped to transition into construction and getting them workforce ready and then helping to connect them with employers.

“Not only do they receive the proper school training, they then get introduced to employers that are interested in hiring them. We’re graduating about 100 people through our partnership with the Pre-Apprenticeship Training Institute in our facility in Cambridge,” says DeWaard.

On the west coast CLAC has entered into a partnership with Thompson Rivers University. Kohut says one of the main benefits in joining forces was to succinctly address the foremost methods of attracting First Nations and Indigenous workers. Oftentimes there can be certain inherent obstacles and challenges to overcome whereby they don’t want to go to school when working on a project near their community. That is when the partnership came up with an innovative virtual classroom training system (VCTS).

“We have a professor teaching them in real-time for a couple of hours a day after their workday. This method allows them to keep working while moving towards getting their Construction Craft Worker Red Seal,” says Kohut.

The VCTS was used at Site C with the Saulteaux First Nation and by all accounts it was a tremendous success.

Health and Safety

The promotion of healthy and safe workplaces is always top of mind for any labour organization. At CLAC, members are given all the training necessary to be both successful and safe. Members are given training courses, support for upgrading skills and there is also support for apprentices whereby CLAC can help defray the costs of going to a trade school.

“On the issue of education – with respect to drug and alcohol abuse and its impact on the workplace – it is something we take very seriously,” notes Kohut. “We have staff hired specifically to address it and we’re always trying to be proactive in that respect rather than dealing with something post-incident.”

That message of openness gets driven home through the educational training courses for shop stewards as well as through direct communication with the membership. It’s yet another indicator that people come first. If there is a problem, it gets dealt with and isn’t merely swept under the rug.

Kohut and DeWaard says CLAC strives to create an open culture whereby it’s not just a matter of the union being there to represent someone after they get in trouble – that’s the old school mentality. Now, it’s about instigating a proactive approach to wanting a safe culture of people who are looking out for one another.

Freedom of Association

Another 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. CLAC has always maintained that workers should have freedom of association and the right to choose to be members or not, this keeps the power of the union over its members in check.

A second notable differentiator is that CLAC sits outside the mainstream trade union movement because of a core belief that workers collectively should enjoy the choice to belong to the union that best suits their needs, best represent their interests, and best reflects their voice.

“We think that choice between unions creates accountability and that in turn leads to a better flourishing union movement,” says DeWaard. “It’s a distinct feature because most trade unions belong inside the Canadian Labor Congress, and its provincial affiliates, and they don’t allow for that to happen.  They believe that choice would weaken the union movement. CLAC believes it strengthens the union when workers have choice and can affect accountability in the in their union.”

DeWaard’s sentiments are echoed by Kohut.

“We’re not the only union that has done wall-to-wall agreements but I think that the craft-based unions – the traditional unions – where the carpenters represent carpenters and the electricians represent electricians is basically what we’ve done all along,” he adds. “There are inherent efficiencies built into our model so we don’t have trades battling each other over who does what, and that extends outside of construction. Anything else just seems silly.”

Both Kohut and DeWaard understand the history behind jurisdictional disputes but the reality is that if you have to wait for someone to come and simply move an object because it’s in the way, rather than do it yourself, that in itself creates massive inefficiencies, especially if you multiply it out by a million man hours over a significant construction project.

“We think it’s an efficiency to have a system where everyone looking to build the project and not battle for their little piece of the pie. We’re all working together as a unified union,” emphasizes Kohut.

Fair and Open Access

CLAC has been working diligently in B.C. and Ontario to convince the governments that publicly-funded construction projects should not be subject to closed tendering or restricted tendering practices. Due to such needless restriction many qualified local personnel find themselves disqualified from any given project because they don’t fit the proper mold of being in a union.

“In Ontario there are municipalities like the Region of Waterloo, Hamilton, Toronto and Sault Ste. Marie that because of a loophole in the Labour Relations Act are treated like they are construction contractors. Because of that they’re subject to rules that are designed for construction companies and those rules prohibit them from tendering out work to CLAC contractors, CLAC members or non-union workers.

Under the current setup only a privileged few unions are given access to certain work and as DeWaard points out, it’s a problem for taxpayers. Several studies have shown that a 20-30% premium is paid for construction work that’s restricted largely because the number of bidders is reduced.

“In B.C. we’ve had a fair and open tendering for the most part but now the government is moving in the opposite direction,” laments Kohut. “We’re not sure exactly what it’s going to look like, but we know it’s going to be some form of closed tendering.”

“When you look at the three pillars of labour being the traditional building trade unions by craft, nonunion or open shop, and progressive unions like CLAC, the building trades in construction in B.C. represent maybe 15% or less. That’s a lot of work for a pretty exclusive group. That should upset taxpayers,” continues Kohut.

Looking to the Future

Expansion through western Canada has been very evident with a number of major initiatives, including additional work at the Calgary Airport. Also in Alberta, the CLAC Career Development College in Edmonton has been a resounding success in just a very short period of time and is proving to be yet another excellent resource tool.  It has been registered as a college and in late 2017 began offering pre-trade programming for welders. In the coming years, it plans to offer pre-trade programs in other trades, as well.

“Construction has always led the way in B.C. but we are growing in other sectors as well,” says Kohut.

“Diversification has always been part of the CLAC fabric,” says DeWaard.

Over the next couple of years both Kohut and DeWaard feel confident in the growth and job prospects for CLAC members.

“In my 18 years we’ve seen pretty robust growth and not for growth sake but as a demonstration that members are joining and staying with CLAC. When I started in 2000 we were cresting 18,000 members and today it is 60,000,” reveals DeWaard. “To us that is a demonstration of how a progressive partner-focused approach to labour relations is working. Members join but they also stay.”

DeWaard hopes to see CLAC surrounded by other emerging organizations that share the same perspective on what a trade union can be and how they can positively affect the workplace towards a more progressive approach to Canadian trade unions.

CLAC has always been a pioneer in pushing for an open and free market, which is a fair market. Kohut says there are other organizations that may be competitors, but if they can also help change the landscape it will result in a more fair system for everyone in the future.

“In the next couple of years I hope we continue to expand and become even more prominent in the other areas where we’re currently doing well and that we become the main representation for workers in other fields as well,” says Kohut.

CLAC is thoroughly and genuinely committed to building better workplaces, better communities and better lives.

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