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The Christian Labour Association of Canada

Issue: 48 Section: Labour Geography: West Alberta Topics: labour, tar sands

December 30, 2007

The Christian Labour Association of Canada

by Philip Neatby

Few subjects inspire more ire within the Canadian labour movement than the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC).

CLAC's website presents the organization as an alternative to the “adversarial” relationship of other unions with employers favouring a more “co-operative approach to labour-management relations.” Although apparently not a Christian organization, CLAC's approach to workplace organization is based upon the “Christian social principles of dignity and respect for all people.” This “non-confrontational” approach is evident in CLAC's background; over the past 30 years, CLAC members have been engaged in only four strikes, the most recent of which (in 2002)lasted two hours.

CLAC was established in 1952 by Dutch immigrants, largely members of the Christian Reformed Church who were disgruntled with the Canadian Labour Congress and its member unions. Most of its locals remained in Ontario until CLAC won a breakthrough campaign to represent 2,500 workers at the Save-On Foods grocery chain throughout Alberta, through voluntary recognition by the employer. By the mid-1980s, CLAC had begun moving into the construction sector. They currently have 11 regional offices, 150 full-time staff members and a membership of 43,000.

CLAC has been roundly criticized as being a “company union.” The Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) website criticizes CLAC's close relationship with management and questions the high rate of 'voluntary recognition' of CLAC locals by employers. Under voluntary recognition, according to AFL President Gil McGowan, CLAC locals often organize within workplaces “with the full co-operation of the boss.” The AFL believes that CLAC has been used by employers to depress wages and discourage workplace disruption. About one in five of CLAC's locals have been certified under voluntary recognition. In addition, CLAC has been criticized for its unwillingness to support employment and pay equity legislation, which they claim “undermine the foundations of such institutions as marriage and the family."

Most recently, CLAC played a key role during negotiations for the Canadian Natural Resources Ltd's (CNRL) Horizon Project, one of the biggest projects of the Athabasca tar sands. The Klein government granted this project 'special status,' which exempted most labour relations rules in construction and allowed the CNRL to negotiate almost exclusively with CLAC. CLAC, in turn, has supported the rapid expansion of the Temporary Foreign Worker program on this site, which has resulted in a rapid influx of thousands of migrant workers. The AFL and the Alberta Building Trades Council claim that the 'special status' of the project is an open attack upon organized Labour in the province and is a direct attempt to depress wages and working conditions on-site, through the exploitation of temporary foreign workers.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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