It’s not just about your work… it’s about your life

The Christian Labour Association of Canada was established in 1952 and founded on the European model of Christian unions. CLAC currently has 25 national Locals and about 62,000 members with some 80 representatives working on behalf of the organization’s membership in Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan and also the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Yukon.

The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with CLAC Executive Director Dick Heinen, Ontario Director Hank Beekhuis and Alberta Director Wayne Prins. Heinen began the discussion by mentioning CLAC is able to trace its origins to a group of workers in Sarnia, Ont. and almost simultaneously with a group of workers in Terrace, B.C.

“A fellow by the name of Gerald Vandezande was very crucial in those early days in pulling together resources and people to make it happen,” he tells us.
From the outset CLAC has always been about recognizing and promoting Christian social ethics and values as opposed to actual religious beliefs and overtones. Applicants are never discriminated against based on their faith. There is an ongoing advocacy for respect, dignity, fairness, integrity and better working and living conditions for each of the union’s workers along with freedom of association.  CLAC opposes what it calls the undemocratic and adversarial tactics often used by a number of traditional unions and has often been publicly praised for taking such a stand.

The cornerstone of CLAC was originally assembled and coordinated by a group of immigrants, many of whom were Dutch, and who had arrived in Canada after World War Two. Immigrants to this country in the late 1940s and early 1950s had always been accustomed to the more open European model of labour relations, including freedom of association.  Such openness was not always tolerated by a majority of trade unions in Canada back then, and not even to this day in many instances.

“Memberships in Europe are based on people’s identification with a particular ideology and so you have what is called union pluralism in the workplace, which is a different background from what we have in North America,” Heinen explains.

“In North America they often don’t want to recognize that there are different ideologies at play,” Beekhuis adds to Heinen’s comment.

The simplest way of understanding the difference in terms of ideology is that few people would want to refer to the traditional union as communist or Marxist anymore. But what underlies all of that is the assumption that the purpose of the union is to address an inherent class struggle between the working folk and the business owners. Labour unions have existed in Canada since the early 1800s but it was not until 1937 when collective bargaining first came about.

“Our assumptions from the starting point are simply different; and that is we share common interests and it’s not so much a class struggle as it is more an effort to work together to achieve a set of common interests, which are the success of the enterprise and fair wages for the workers,” notes Prins.

CLAC has come a long way since those early years, when it was a herculean effort to just survive. In the 1950s there were several very powerful established unions who had little interest in sharing space with a newcomer for fear those established entities would be overshadowed by more progressive, stronger business plans introduced by the new player on the scene. Labour boards discriminated against the new union and refused to certify it until ordered to do so by the Ontario Supreme Court in 1963.

Following certification 52 years ago, CLAC began to grow almost immediately, but so too did opposition from competitor unions. Every conceivable means was brought to bear against CLAC and its members—from illegal walkouts and picket lines, to false accusations and threats, to acts of violence. But the organization, through strong dedicated leadership, persevered and the union continued to grow, thanks to an unbreakable bond that held the core together, which in turn gave confidence to the full membership.

“We had a lot of people who supported us in the early years and a lot of our members who had to put up with a lot of opposition,” Beekhuis recalls. “Whenever you have an establishment within a country who thinks they are entitled to a monopoly then I think it’s a matter of market share to some extent and it becomes competitive. But we think competition is good and more is required in the marketplace.”

Freedom of Association

One of the fundamental differences between CLAC and many other traditional trade unions is that there is absolutely no pressure on demands for exclusivity with the membership; this ideology is based on a principle known as freedom of association.

“We believe that members have the inherent freedom to join organizations and to belong to them as they choose,” notes Heinen.

Many other unions take a much harder approach to that line of thinking, believing that if you are a member of their particular union then you must be 100% loyal to that union, even if that union is unable to provide you with work, as you sit at home and wait until an opportunity arises.

The thought process is that by working elsewhere it diminishes the power or influence of the union.  Some unions will go as far as to fine their members if they go outside union ranks.

“We take a completely different approach to it,” Prins remarks. “We make every effort to provide work opportunities for our members, but if we can’t do that we encourage them to do whatever is necessary to provide for their families, and if that means working elsewhere, then that’s the reality of the workforce.”

Workplace Collaboration

It has always been a primary objective for the leadership at CLAC to promote cooperation, not confrontation.  That mantra has served the union well and has earned it a tremendous amount of respect with many of the companies it deals with across Canada where its workers are employed. However, it’s not always the easiest approach, as Heinen candidly admits.

“That is the hallmark of the organization, difficult as it is,” he remarks. “You can’t always be cooperative and you can’t always work in partnership because it always takes two to play. Certainly from a philosophical foundation we are committed to a community workplace that isn’t based on a class struggle but rather on a differentiation of responsibility.”

With any infrastructure project there is always a workforce that executes the project, the managers who manage the workforce and the owners who provide capital. But it is CLAC’s contention than none ought to be perceived as being above any of the others and that a collaborative and consultative approach is what leads to a successful enterprise.

In speaking with the CLAC executive team it is abundantly clear they are fundamentally in favour of more express openness and fairness in the labour market and believe the Canadian economy will benefit when workers are given honest and informed choices. CLAC is also staunchly independent in that it is not part of the Canadian Labour Congress or the various provincial federations. This allows the union the ability to be more innovative and to meet the needs of its members. CLAC enjoyed a significant growth spurt in the 1980s with a lot of new representatives, college graduates who were prepared to really push the organization forward but certainly the opening up of Alberta was a huge game-changer for the union.

CLAC believes that being part of a work project is much more than collecting a weekly paycheque and that it additionally has the ability to enrich individual lives and society as a whole. The organization has always been very vocal that family, clubs, sports and other recreational activities are all important facets of a healthy, happy lifestyle.  It is the goal of CLAC to improve workplace conditions for its members in order to maximize one’s life both at work and at home.  CLAC’s representatives and professional stewards make the firm commitment to always be available to back their members in all work environments and to advocate on behalf of the workers when problems arise on the job.

Business Industries

Construction, healthcare and the food and services industries have been the primary pillars for CLAC, although the union is involved in a number of other business sectors.  In Ontario, CLAC is particularly robust in healthcare, while construction leads the way in the west. In Alberta alone there are 27,000 CLAC members, 23,000 of whom are involved in construction.

“Construction makes up about 65% of our work nationally,” Beekhuis confirms. “In Ontario our healthcare sector is probably twice as large as our construction sector, but that said construction is our most rapidly growing.”

Transportation, retail and manufacturing are examples of other areas that CLAC is involved in and the executive team is quite willing and prepared to expand further into any one of them. CLAC is already the largest national multi-sector independent union in Canada.

“The organization is very aware that we are multi-craft and cover people in a wide variety of sectors,” Heinen says. “We’re available to get into entirely new sectors if that were to be the opportunity.”

“Diversification is a positive thing, both sectorally and also geographically,” Beekhuis adds. “We’re currently in five provinces and the territories and have federal certification as well, but there are other provinces that we can get into, as well as sectors.”

Constantly on the mind of the executive team is the realization that an organization can only grow so fast while still being able to maintain a sense of identity and optimum quality in terms of work performance. Growth can be terrific, but good, sustainable growth is the primary, stabilizing objective.

“I think we all believe that our brand of trade unionism is a great fit in all kinds of settings that we are not yet involved in,” Prins remarks.  “But growth that is done too quickly is done at our detriment. As it is our rate of growth has been fairly rapid.”

“We are not in a position where we are struggling for growth because we’ve had a lot over the years but we do need to pay attention to the fact that in the future there will be different kinds of jobs,” Heinen says in continuing the point. “There is also increasingly with the next generation a bit of a disenfranchisement with trade unions. We want to ensure we are relevant to a new generation that, generally speaking, want to go out on their own, and where there are jobs we had never envisioned, such as computing gaming for example. We’re all faced with those same challenges but we’re not facing it as a result of planning to retain our growth, we’re facing it as a result of wanting to remain relevant in the future.”

CLAC is also unique in that the average age of its construction membership is more than a decade younger than the average age of the construction workforce nationally.

“Our average age in Local 63, which is the Alberta construction Local, is just over 37 years old,” reveals Prins. “If you compare that to some of the published demographics of the construction workforce nationally the average age is well into the 50s.”

CLAC always remains non-partisan when it comes to supporting ruling governments or any of the opposition parties.  In the business world a key to success is being able to work with all political stripes, hard as that may be at times.

“It’s not that we don’t take political positions or that we don’t get involved politically but we don’t support any particular party or any particular candidate,” Heinen remarks. “Our level of involvement at the political level is to work with whatever group or party is in power at the time and work towards legislative changes as required, protecting the interests of the workers.”

Building Momentum

The exponential growth of CLAC, particularly in the construction sector, is what financially bolstered the organization and paved the way for establishing a relationship with the federal government and provincial governments and enabling the organization to expose itself as a very influential and important voice in the world of labour relations.

“Alberta and British Columbia were the two areas in which there was explosive growth in the construction industry and I think it was that growth that made us into a player that was recognized by the various industries and governments where it was clear we’d reached a position where we had some real influence,” Prins says.

Many of CLAC’s benefit structures started in the late 70s when it merged with a small trade union in Hamilton. They had the basics of a benefit plan and retirement plans system to which CLAC adopted, first across the province of Ontario and then across the country. That is certainly a large part of the successful operation today with about 62,000 people who have funds in the retirement plans. There are 35,000 who participate in the benefits plans.

It is thanks to CLAC’s rapid growth that the organization has tapped into some of the younger people looking to get into the industry.  In negotiating wages and benefits for its members, CLAC takes into consideration the economic viability of each individual enterprise.

“We have structured our collective agreements and fostered relationships with our signatory contractors to really optimize the use of apprentices wherever possible,” Prins says.

Historically labour unions have incorporated policies that protect a journey person’s job and they do that by creating required ratios that exceed general legislated ratios. In any given workforce you need x-number of journey people for every apprentice. A lot of unions would increase the requirements.  As example, rather than having two journey people for every apprentice they would say they required three for every apprentice, based on a collective bargaining agreement, which was a built-in way of protecting the jobs for the long-standing members. But this approach makes it very difficult for the next generation to get a foothold in the industry in which they would like to base their careers.

“We have taken a very different approach to that and said we are in the business of growing a workforce and creating opportunities for people who want to get into the industry,” Prins says. “We have lobbied government to reduce ratios where it is reasonable and we have tried to work with our contractors to maintain a one to one ratio between journeymen and apprentices in the field.  In many cases it has been achieved and improved our standing in having a young workforce that is looking forward to having a long career in the industry.”

“The youth are also attracted to our more open and flexible style and digital presence.  All of those things that are much more modern,” adds Beekhuis.
It’s all about earning the loyalty of workers as opposed to demanding it, which is clearly the old way of thinking.

There is a lot of manipulation on the national political scene with many labour unions, which is something CLAC has consistently vowed not to ever become involved in. Regardless of the party in power, it has been the organization’s conscious decision to work with the governing body and not simply support one party over another.  That openness has served the organization extremely well and has resulted in a respect level not often afforded many labour unions. CLAC ensures that the terms and conditions of all negotiated collective agreements are honoured and cannot be undermined through subcontracting. In a highly competitive marketplace, CLAC commits to securing the very best wage and benefit provisions for its members along with health and retirement benefits.


In the 1990s, CLAC began opening training centres to provide skills and safety training for its workers. CLAC runs training programs from nearly every office and operates major provincial training centres in Edmonton, Alberta, Langley, B.C. and Cambridge, Ontario.  CLAC initiated career services programs in order to best match workers and their skills with employers. Benefit programs have also expanded with the addition of an Advantage Program offering members discounts at a number of retailers and service providers, a nationwide employee family and assistance program, and an innovative national Wellness Program—the first of its kind by a union in Canada. The growth has resulted in greater recognition in the labour relations community, with CLAC having a reputation of truly caring about their members.

“The training centres started in Alberta as a response to our growth in the construction industry and the necessity for additional training beyond the skills training,” Heinen says. “It was primarily focused on those kinds of safety courses that were necessary. It was that that got us really into the whole training environment.”

Since then CLAC has expanded into supplementary skills training. It began in Alberta and then moved into Ontario where construction opportunities have noticeably expanded.

“We don’t do training that is already done by the various colleges and trade facilities, but we do all the training that is necessary to complement the skills training,” Heinen mentions.

In healthcare and food services there are a number of different jobs including registered nurses and registered practical nurses along with personal support workers and housekeepers.

“The key is that in the construction industry in particular we don’t run hiring halls,” Beekhuis says. “We don’t have people sitting around. The 62,000 workers are employed.”

Many CLAC members have a long-standing relationship with one or more employers, and this employment service allows employers to name-hire former employees.

Community Involvement

CLAC leadership is committed to building better workplaces, better communities and generally to better people’s lives.

“We need to look at human beings as whole people; they are not just economic resources,” says Beekhuis.

A great deal of time and effort is devoted to Aboriginal communities and their involvement in the workforce.  As one would expect, some sectors have been more conducive than others but the most predominant activity that has included Aboriginal communities and their engagement to this point has been the construction industry. CLAC has made a conscientious effort to tap into the Aboriginal workforce to train them, to help them transition into a regular work environment across the board from north to south.

“It’s one of the most critical efforts that we engage in, especially when we talk about the challenges of worker shortages and how we are going to address that long term as well as the social issues that we see in the Aboriginal communities,” states Prins.

CLAC has always made solid commitments to every region to contribute to local projects and community events through sponsorships.  They also have a focused program called Building Communities Together, which is initiated by the membership.  Members can recommend a particular charity or a program – be it building a playground in a city or supporting a particular charity. They have the opportunity to submit it to the organization for review. On a quarterly basis, the executive branch makes selections from the lists of causes that the members had submitted and CLAC contributes to those causes.

The overriding message is that, first and foremost, CLAC cares about its people, professionally and personally.  It’s not just about your work… it’s about your life.