Irene Webster, a deli clerk at the Midnapore Allwest supermarket in Calgary, was curious when her employer instructed her to go to a 10 p.m. staff meeting on October 18, 1989. The paid meeting was about unionizing Allwest’s workforce. This was puzzling. The store’s owner, Associated Grocers, was notoriously anti-union. For 62 years the company had successfully blocked any attempts at unionization, but suddenly it was keen on bringing in a union—an unconventional one that few of the workers had heard of.
Fifteen years later, in Edmonton, Tyler Zielke and about 160 other employees of Finning Canada were told the shop where they worked repairing heavy equipment parts would be closed. A shift-scheduling dispute between the machinists union and Finning had reached an impasse. Finning closed the shop, laid off about 160 workers, including Zielke, and outsourced the work to a new shop fully paid for by Finning International and operated by a wholly owned subsidiary. Zielke and about 30 other laid-off workers were offered jobs at the new shop, but there was a significant change: at the new shop, the workers would be represented by an alternative union, not the machinists union.
That same year, the provincial government granted Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.’s massive Horizon oil sands project special status under a rarely used section of the Labour Relations code. The $10.5-billion project north of Fort McMurray has leases for an area more than six times the size of Red deer, and CNRL wanted a master collective agreement that would cover all 6,000-plus employees on the site regardless of their trade. The Klein cabinet approved CNRL’s application for special status, and in 2005 the company made a master agreement with a construction union scorned by traditional building trades unions.
In all three of these cases, workers came face to face with the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC), a controversial organization that is rapidly expanding in Alberta, despite fierce opposition. CLAC’s website says the union uses “a co-operative approach based on christian values of mutual respect and the dignity and worth of every human being,” as opposed to “a hard-nosed, us-against-them approach based on socialist principles.”
CLAC’s critics, meanwhile, say the union is undemocratic and employer-friendly, pandering to management at the expense of workers’ rights.
Nevertheless, CLAC has put down deep roots in Alberta. The union says it has between 12,000 and 15,000 members (there were only 500 in 1989) and over 200 active collective agreements in the province. But as it grows, many Albertans are wondering: what exactly does CLAC represent, and why is its membership growing so fast in Alberta?
Dick Heinen Swings open his office door on the second floor of CLAC’s new 30,000-square-foot building on 118 Avenue in west Edmonton—the largest cLAc office in the country. The tall, white-bearded Dutchman’s sense of humour is immediately evident from the decor: on his windowsill sits a Calgary Herald political cartoon depicting Heinen sitting behind a desk labeled “Boss.” Heinen’s cartoon-drawn hand is holding a mug clearly labeled “CLAC.” Underneath the cartoon, which has been blown up on card stock, someone has written in felt pen: Dick Heinen, Union Goon. “Our lawyers liked this so much they gave it to me,” explains Heinen with a grin, later pointing to a bright orange sticker on his door that says “I’m a union goon.”
Heinen, 57, is a journeyman carpenter and CLAC’s newly appointed executive director. Having worked as a christian Reformed pastor for eight years, he is well acquainted with CLAC’s religious underpinnings. “We’re based on christian social principles,” explains Heinen. “We believe that things like respect, dignity, fairness, integrity and community are values that are fundamentally christian and should be incorporated into every workplace. A person should be able to do his work with respect. But that worker also has a responsibility to respect those that are managers.”
CLAC has only gone on strike five times in its 55-year history, and never in Alberta. Heinen doesn’t play down the union’s aversion to confrontational labour relations. “I think that the adversarial stuff was necessary to get workers to where they are today, no doubt about that,” he says. “But today we’re in a different world… most of us would recognize that many of the abuses of management are no longer there.”
Heinen has been involved with the union since he was 18, joining while working as a carpenter’s helper in BC’s Fraser Valley. At the time, CLAC members joined simply because they agreed with the organization’s christian values—they didn’t benefit directly from membership.
“I agreed with the CLAC in terms of its founding principles and developing a co-operative model of work community,” says Heinen. “Those things resonated with me when I was 18 and idealistic.”
CLAC was started in 1952 by dutch immigrants to Canada, many of whom had worked for christian unions in the Netherlands. Unlike their north American counterparts, European unions organized around religious or philosophical values instead of pragmatic workplace goals, and each of these unions would collectively negotiate agreements with employers. Workers weren’t required to join a certain union if they worked for a certain employer—they were free to choose the one best suited to their personal beliefs.
For dutch christian Reformed immigrants, who were used to these ideology-based collectives, Canada’s secular unions— most of which had a socialist perspective and ran closed shops with mandatory membership—were too radical a change. “When people came to Canada, they said, ‘Oh, where’s the protestant union? Where’s the catholic union? There is no such thing,’” says Heinen. “And so these people set up unions according to their ideology.” Hence CLAC was born. (Workers under CLAC agreements are not required to officially join the union, but they still have to pay dues unless they apply to opt out and give the equivalent of their dues to a charity.)
CLAC’s first Alberta local was certified in 1964. The union opened an Alberta office in Edmonton in 1967, but closed it three years later because membership was struggling in the West and burgeoning in Ontario. The Edmonton office was reopened in 1979, but it wasn’t until the Allwest agreement a decade later that CLAC really wedged open the door in Alberta. “It was a bit of a turning point, no doubt,” says Heinen.
Irene Webster went to the 10 p.m. Allwest meeting in October 1989 not knowing what to expect. At the meeting, company president Steve Vanderleest introduced co Vanderlaan, then CLAC’s Alberta director. The union was unfamiliar to many of the 80-plus employees present, since it was still new on Alberta’s retail scene. But the assembled employees soon realized that CLAC was offering to represent them. Webster was paid four hours’ wages by Allwest to attend the meeting. Allwest had also paid some of the cost of renting the meeting hall. A wage contract was presented on a screen, and the employees voted on the deal.
“We had no time to read the package and I was really confused, and so were a lot of other people,” Webster later told the Calgary Herald. nevertheless, the employees chose to ratify the deal in a 69-to-18 vote. Suddenly CLAC represented Allwest’s approximately 165 workers, although no employees knew about negotiations between CLAC and the company that had occurred several hours before. Several employees didn’t show up at the meeting; they said they were given the wrong address.
In the days following, Webster and other employees heard that the vote had been rushed because Vancouver tycoon Jim Pattison, who owns the Save-On-Foods supermarket chain, was planning to buy the Allwest stores. (CLAC denies this. “We had no idea at the outset, going in, that Allwest was a Pattison target,” says Neil Roos, CLAC’s recently retired executive director.) Sure enough, Pattison bought Allwest in November, less than a month after CLAC struck a deal with the company.
Webster filed a complaint with the Alberta Labour Relations Board, which launched a hearing into the agreement. The Save-On-Foods workers in Bc were represented by the UFCW, and Webster’s lawyer, Bill Johnson, argued the agreement was orchestrated by Pattison before the takeover. “Obviously, it was one of Pattison’s conditions of the sale that the stores must be signed up with CLAC rather than the UFCW,” Johnson told the board.
At the hearing, Vanderlaan testified that the Allwest employees had no input into the agreement. By all accounts, the company had approached the union of its own accord, and the employees were the last to know about the negotiations. However, Dan Mcdonald, a CLAC lawyer, urged the board “not to frown” on co-operation between company and union. “co-operation is a legitimate exercise in labour/management relations,” he said.
The board ultimately agreed, upholding the CLAC/Allwest agreement. “Because an employer grants voluntary recognition to a trade union and co-operates with it, it does not follow that the union is dominated or influenced by the employer,” said the board in its January 1990 ruling. The decision gave CLAC a stronger foothold in Alberta, and in particular the retail sector. When CLAC signed on with Allwest it represented about 165 workers. Today, it represents over 2,500 employees in 19 Alberta Save-On-Foods stores.
CLAC’s critics say the Allwest agreement and others like it are evidence the union is nothing more than a pawn of management, used to rob employees of choice. CLAC counters that it gives workers choice by allowing them to decide whether to join the union and by letting workers vote on collective agreements. The Allwest agreement was, after all, ratified by employees. But not all CLAC agreements are even that democratic.
Critics say CLAC is undemocratic, pandering to management at the expense of workers’ rights.
Tyler Zielke had been working at Finning Canada’s remanufacturing shop in west Edmonton for about six months when, in June 2004, Finning International suddenly announced it was closing the shop.
Zielke was a component inspector at the shop, which was unionized by the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) Local 99. The company had held earlier discussions with the union about shifts at a soon- to-be-built shop intended to replace the existing one, but no agreement was reached and the new facility was never built. Because of the closure, Finning laid off about 160 workers, including Zielke.
The work was contracted out to a newly built shop, also in west Edmonton, that was fully paid for by Finning International and operated by a wholly owned subsidiary, OEM Remanufacturing. Zielke and about 30 other workers in the Finning shop were told they would have jobs at OEM. “The people they wanted basically had jobs [offered to them],” says Zielke. “They let you know beforehand: ‘you have a job at the new place.’” But there was a significant difference between the two shops: at the new one, the workers would be represented by
CLAC, not I AM AW. The workers had no say in the collective agreement—it was signed before they knew anything about it. As with the Allwest situation, CLAC says that when it entered into the collective agreement, it didn’t know about the contracting out. “The relationship that [OEM] had with Finning—we were not aware of that relationship,” says Heinen.
In a subsequent Labour Relations Board decision about the arrangement—which included a cash transfer of $87-million from Finning International to OEM—the board referred to an undated Finning management document that suggested the motivation for closing the old shop. “considering the existing holdup in the new CRC [component rebuild centre] facility appears to be related to the union it may be worthwhile exploring the possibility of acquiring a non-union repair business and build a Finning business unit around the acquired business,” said the document. “This may allow us to grow the component repair side of the business without the union restrictions we are currently being exposed to.”
I AM AW filed a complaint with the labour board about the arrangement, and during the subsequent hearing Finning and OEM admitted their “arrangements are structured as they are to avoid a collective bargaining relationship with [IAMAW].” (Finning Canada now denies this: Robin Carr, director of labour relations, says the shop closure was simply a business decision unrelated to union difficulties.) In April 2005 the board ruled in the union’s favour, deciding that Finning and OEM were not separate employers. But Finning appealed to the board, which overturned the April decision on June 7 because “the original panel made a number of errors of law” in deciding that OEM was the same employer as Finning.
When I asked Finning spokesperson Joanne Miller why the original decision said Finning wanted to avoid dealing with IAMAW, she chided: “The words that you’re reading in there, while they were written in black and white, they’re no weight. So it’s inappropriate for you to be reflecting on them for the purposes of this article.”
The second panel, led by Labour Relations Board chair Mark Asbell, decided Finning and OEM were not the same company, and that decision was subsequently upheld by the court of Queen’s Bench. Zielke and his co-workers found themselves represented by CLAC through no choice of their own. (IAMAW has appealed the Queen’s Bench decision, and the case goes before the court of Appeal this month.) “That kind of manoeuvre would have been ruled inappropriate or even illegal in almost any other jurisdiction in Canada, but they got away with it in Alberta because of our weak labour laws,” says Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour. “CLAC was key to that.”
Zielke says there was a big difference between the way IAMAW represented the workers at Finning and the way cLAc represents the workers at OEM. “It just seemed that [CLAC] was less involved with the workers, more involved with the company,” says Zielke, who left OEM in February to work in the oil sands. Union meetings were less frequent at OEM. And Zielke says shop stewards were often more concerned with keeping employees quiet than fighting for them. “They were telling workers… to shut up,” he says. “To shut their mouths when they were confronting issues.”
What about wages? pay and benefits are arguably the most important parts of any collective agreement, and a fiery anti- CLAC website run by the Alberta Federation of Labour compares the Finning/IAMAW agreement to the first OEM/ CLAC agreement. Under the IAMAW agreement an experienced welder got $31.17 an hour. Under the CLAC agreement, the same welder would earn $22.95 an hour. not all of the wages are lower—some workers, including Zielke, got a slight pay increase when they moved to OEM—but most of the OEM wages were lower than Finning’s. Often CLAC wages are slightly lower than those of traditional unions, though CLAC contends the shortage is made up in retention bonuses and other awards.
“There’s no real difference in the wage rate,” says Paul de Jong, CLAC’s Alberta director. “There is indeed a difference in how the package is constructed… we have some arrangements where the actual wage rate is complemented by a retention bonus scheme, and different kinds of bonus schemes, so that at the end of the day our member is making roughly the same take-home pay as a building trades member.”
Zielke says he got fewer benefits after moving from Finning to OEM, and the two collective agreements contain significant differences. Instead of 12 paid holidays per year, the workers got 10. The paid vacation time decreased. And while Finning contributed the equivalent of 5.75 per cent of an employee’s salary to their pension, OEM only paid 3 per cent. At Finning, the probationary period for new employees was 90 days. At OEM, it jumped to six months. And at OEM, employees could be fired without just cause, so long as the worker was given severance pay. Zielke had a friend who was fired from OEM without just cause and is waiting to see whether or not CLAC will do anything about it. Would CLAC fight for a worker that was fired unjustly? The union says yes. “Some of our companies say that we file [grievances] far too repeatedly,” says de Jong. But traditional union leaders say CLAC is easy to push over. In 2006, 94 grievances went through the full process of arbitration in Alberta, and only one of those was a CLAC grievance.
CLAC prides itself on being apolitical, but it has some notable political connections.
Before the first OEM agreement expired last October, the employees voted to ratify another CLAC agreement, which included a $1,000 signing bonus. IAMAW and the Canadian Auto Workers union tried to organize the workers during the open season—the period before a collective agreement ends when other unions can Zielke says the new employees were more interested in the $1,000 signing bonus. “A lot of the people who were smart and came from Finning wanted to [change unions],” says Zielke. “But there were too many other, new workers and other people just willing to take the quick money and go with it.”
CLAC prides itself on being apolitical. Unlike most traditional unions, it doesn’t financially support the NDP or tell its members how to vote. nevertheless, CLAC has some notable political connections. Brent Rathgeber, a former Tory MLA, is the executive director of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCAC), an industry lobby group of CLAC contractors and suppliers (including Finning Canada). Rathgeber, who is running as the conservative candidate for Edmonton-St. Albert in the next federal election, is frank about pcAc’s cozy relationship with CLAC. “There’s no formal relation at all, but there are many, many informal relations,” says Rathgeber. “We work collaboratively with CLAC reps on industry/government task forces and committees. And when it comes to lobbying, almost always the interests of PCAC and CLAC are aligned.” (Finning also has connections to the provincial progressive conservatives. It regularly donates to the party, and former conservative leadership candidate Jim dinning is a director of Finning International.)
The close relationships between CLAC, PCAC and government were evident at a golf tournament held by PCAC the day before the Labour Relations Board overturned the original Finning/OEM decision on June 7, 2005. Finning lawyer David Ross was among the 130 golfers, as was Mark Asbell, the chair of the labour board. Ross and Asbell captured two of the tournament’s four championships, and a photo of them appeared on PCAC’s website a few days later. “That’s just too inconsistent with being neutral—that the chair of the labour board is seen there golfing with Finning’s lawyer,” says Bob Mckinnon, president of IAMAW Local 99.
Asbell says his presence at the golf tournament wasn’t a conflict of interest. “I participate in all kinds of functions,” he says. “I participate in union functions, I participate in management functions—so if somebody wants to complain about participation, that’s up to them.”
Rathgeber agrees that it wasn’t a conflict of interest for the chair of the Labour Board to attend a PCAC golf tournament the day before handing down a decision in favour of one of the group’s members. “There was no lobbying going on on the golf course,” says Rathgeber. “I think the optics of it were unfortunate. [But] the reality of the situation is that in a city the size of Edmonton, the bar is not that big, so lawyers do socialize with judges… I’ve seen Mark at building trades functions as well.”
Both PCAC and CLAC have vocally supported Canada’s controversial temporary foreign worker program, which has been liberalized under the federal conservatives despite the protests of unions and human rights advocates concerned that foreign workers aren’t adequately protected in Alberta. “Our companies are probably at the forefront of the importation of foreign labour into the Athabasca tar sands,” says Rathgeber. “And because our companies have a good relationship with CLAC, we are vilified by those who are opposed to the importation of foreign labour.”
One of CLAC’s most controversial collective agreements is with Canadian natural Resources Ltd. for its huge Horizon oil sands construction project. That agreement allows for the use of temporary foreign workers. In 2004, the project was granted special status under a rarely used provision of the Alberta Labour Relations code. division 8, which hadn’t been invoked since 1989, allows a company to negotiate a single collective agreement with a single union to cover all employees on the site, regardless of their union affiliation (or lack thereof—it covers non-union employees as well). To be approved for special status, the project must be “significant to the economy of Alberta” and the provincial cabinet has to decide the arrangement would be “in the public interest.”
The Klein cabinet decided the Horizon project met those criteria, and in 2005 the company approached CLAC and struck a deal that would cover the 6,000-plus employees—including foreign workers from countries such as India and the Philippines—on the Horizon site. (CLAC says less than 10 per cent of the Horizon workers are temporary foreign workers.) no workers ratified the CLAC agreement—there was no one on the site when it was signed. “[It’s] an example of business as usual for our business-friendly conservative government,” says McGowan. “They’re used to simply rubber-stamping requests from corporate Alberta and that’s exactly what seems to have happened here. They didn’t actually stop to think about the rationale for the application or its potential downsides.”
Because CLAC is a wall-to-wall union, all workers on the site—regardless of their trade—are covered under a single agreement, with a few exceptions. non-CLAC workers are covered by the shift arrangements of the CLAC agreement even if they belong to building trades unions or no union. And under the CLAC agreement, workers don’t get double time for working weekends. The Alberta Building Trades council says CLAC has no right to represent all workers on the site— especially members of other unions—and is fighting to have the agreement revoked by the Labour Relations Board. So far this attempt has failed.
Freedom of choice is central to the CLAC philosophy. “We have tried to say, ‘Let’s try to open it up to respect the democratic rights of Canadians a bit more,’” says de Jong. “In Canada, one of our foundational rights is that we should not be forced to join or not join a union against our will.”
CLAC says it is committed to worker choice and human dignity. choice, because it doesn’t force workers to sign a CLAC membership card. But on the Horizon site, workers have no choice but to fall under the cLAc agreement, even if they belong to another union. At OEM, a group of Finning employees had no choice but to join a CLAC workforce if they wanted to keep working. And at Allwest, CLAC and the company hastily organized workers before a big takeover, raising questions about whether CLAC was truly the employees’ choice. While CLAC may not have been aware of the corporate manoeuvring in all of these cases, the union’s involvement nevertheless calls into question its commitment to worker choice.
Its unsettling eagerness to bring in temporary foreign workers, meanwhile, throws a shadow of doubt on its commitment to worker dignity. Other unions, labour advocates and religious organizations—many of them christian—have long warned that canada’s program sets workers up for abuse, and yet CLAC still supports it. Where others have called for caution, CLAC has rushed ahead.
CLAC may be right when it says “hard-nosed” traditional unions need a more holistic approach to workplace relations. But so far CLAC hasn’t made a convincing case that its employer-friendly brand of trade unionism is the solution. To make that case, it’s going to need more than government and employer support. Workers, after all, should have a say.
Jeremy Klaszus is the contributing editor of Alberta Views.