Fast-growing union defends pro-employer reputation

Traditional trade unions accuse the Christian Labour Alliance of Canada of negotiating contracts that put employers before workers

Threatened by the pace of growth enjoyed by an employer-friendly union, particularly in Alberta’s booming construction industry, a number of traditional unions have stepped up criticism of the Christian Labour Alliance of Canada (CLAC).

“CLAC is either wittingly or unwittingly being used as a tool by employers to push more traditional unions out of the picture,” said Gill McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

In recent months traditional trade unions have grown very vocal in accusing CLAC of signing sweetheart deals that benefit employers, not workers, and of raiding other unions for members. They have held three anti-CLAC rallies in Fort McMurray, Alta., since April.

CLAC has been around for more than 50 years and the Canada Industrial Relations Board recognizes it as a trade union as does Ontario, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Alberta and Manitoba. However, it isn’t a member of the Canadian Labour Congress.

In 2000, CLAC had 22,000 members. By the end of 2004, that number had grown to 32,000. In the past few years, CLAC has been gaining ground in the northern Alberta oilsands, pushing out more traditional — and usually more expensive — trade unions.

CLAC’s Ontario provincial director Ed Bosveld denied allegations that CLAC looks out for employers at the expense of workers, but doesn’t apologize for having a more co-operative relationship with employers. He said workers and employers want an alternative to the traditional acrimonious labour-management relationship.

“We think labour relations are best done in co-operation and in partnership between labour and management,” said Bosveld. “A lot of traditional unions see management as automatically being the enemy. We just don’t think that leads to a good workplace for anybody.”

He said half of CLAC’s 32,000 members are in the construction industry. However, labour relations lawyer Michael McCreary, of Toronto law firm Watson, Jacobs, McCreary, said he suspects that it’s really the employers and not the workers that have the final say in choosing the union.

CLAC acquires the majority of its bargaining rights, not by certification that requires workers to vote for or against the union, but by voluntary recognition, he said.

Alberta’s labour relations law allows an employer to choose a union without the workers voting on it. There are legitimate reasons for using voluntary recognition: either because employers have to sign up a union to get contract work from another unionized company or because the work is short term and the certification process would take too long.

However, the process is subject to abuse because an employer can choose a union that none of its workers even want in order to prevent another, tougher union from signing up workers.

McGowan said this is common in the construction industry, especially in the oilsands projects in northern Alberta. “I think CLAC is being used as a tool for union-busting in the Fort McMurray area,” he said.

Dick Heinen, CLAC’s Alberta provincial director, denied McGowan’s and McCreary’s allegations. “That’s just not true. Most of our contracts are through certification.”

He said virtually all of the bargaining rights the union acquires are through a certification process where CLAC makes a submission to the labour board. The labour board then authorizes a representative vote where the employees vote to certify the union.

McGowan said CLAC has organized companies with just a handful of workers. The companies then hire hundreds more workers just days or weeks later. But Bosveld denied any wrongdoing on the union’s part. He said that sometimes CLAC will unionize a small company that just happens to expand a few weeks, or months, later.

Earlier this year Finning International closed its plant in Edmonton, which was organized by the International Association of Machinists, and contracted out to OEM Manufacturing, which, according to McGowan, turned out to be owned by Finning.

OEM then signed up with CLAC. “(OEM) didn’t start hiring until after they had a contract with CLAC,” said McGowan.

Responding to the charges, Heinen said that CLAC organized workers at two companies, with a significant number of employees, which were then purchased by OEM. He said that after the merger, OEM built the new plant. “Our involvement in that was only in the representation of the members of two companies that were amalgamated,” said Heinen.

He added that the union wasn’t aware of the dealings between Finning and OEM. He said while the labour board initially found that Finning/OEM had attempted to circumvent the Machinists union’s collective agreement, a reconsideration panel found what OEM did was legal.

Another of CLAC’s practices that has garnered a lot of criticism from the traditional trade unions is the union’s reluctance to strike. Bosveld said CLAC goes to great lengths to avoid strikes because they hurt union members but said there are times when a strike is necessary. “We believe in the right to strike,” he said. “We believe it’s an important right.”

Labour relations lawyer David Côté, of Toronto’s Cassels Brock law firm, said that a lot of the criticism of CLAC from traditional trade unions comes from the fear of losing members, and thus revenue, to CLAC.

“You’ve got thousands of employees who have made the decision to pick CLAC over other trade unions,” said the lawyer. “CLAC is cutting into the profit that trade unions make.”

But McCreary said the issue isn’t about money or profits, it’s about protecting workers’ rights, especially those who work “on the tools” their whole lives. According to McCreary and McGowan, CLAC regularly signs contracts with less overtime pay and fewer benefits than traditional trade unions.

“I can’t stress how important pension is for the skilled trades. It’s tough, physically demanding work being a tradesman,” said McCreary. “CLAC doesn’t provide the level of pension by any standards of the designated trades. I think that’s a travesty.”

Bosveld denied these allegations and said that CLAC offers high wages and keeps its overall costs reasonable by running better benefit and pension plans that cost the employer less but still provide high quality to workers. “Our members get excellent benefits and excellent pensions,” he said.

McCreary said CLAC is notorious for not having a sub-contracting agreement that would ensure the company only hires union workers. He said that this clause is the most protective clause in a collective agreement and one that the traditional trade unions almost always include in contracts.

Heinen said the majority of CLAC agreements don’t have a subcontracting clause because the union believes in the right of individuals to choose whether or not to join a union. “It’s about freedom of association,” he said. “A subcontracting clause ensures that only certain people… who are members of a particular union get the work. We just think that’s wrong.”

McCreary said another way that CLAC fails to protect workers’ rights is by hardly ever filing grievances against its employers. “A trade union that is not filing grievances and not enforcing the provisions of the collective agreement is not doing its job,” he said.

However, CLAC denies McCreary’s allegation. “It’s absolutely not true that we don’t file grievances,” said Heinen. “We do that every day.”

He said one of CLAC’s arbitration rulings has become the standard for determining if a quit is actually a quit. A few years ago, an employee said “I quit” after a heated argument with her supervisor. When Heinen talked to her she said that she hadn’t meant it. CLAC took the case to arbitration and the arbitrator ruled that given the high emotions, a quit in that situation wasn’t a quit. “Many other unions are relying on that as a precedent,” said Heinen.

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