Reinventing the union
In the early 1950s, the Canadian labour scene was chaotic. Strikes, lockouts, violence, and the politics of fear dominated the headlines of the day. CLAC’s founders knew there was a better way.
Groups of like-minded workers gathered to discuss and debate what could be done. Their discussions led to one conclusion: it was time to form an alternative union.
CLAC (Christian Labour Association of Canada) was officially established on February 20, 1952. Founded on the European model of Christian unions, the new union sought to apply principles of social justice to labour relations and the workplace.
From the outset, CLAC’s early years were marked by a struggle for survival. The existing union establishment sought to destroy CLAC at every turn. 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, CLAC began to grow. So did opposition. Every conceivable means was brought to bear against CLAC and its members—from illegal walkouts and picket lines, to false accusations and frivolous complaints, to intimidation tactics and threats, to acts of violence.
CLAC representatives were followed and harassed. CLAC-organized contractors experienced sabotage—a contractor’s crane was dynamited, and another firm saw its job-site building go up in flames.
These attempts to destroy CLAC taxed the union’s limited resources. But the organization’s hidden strength was the support of its general workers local members, who supported and paid dues to CLAC out of principle—even though the union did not represent them at their workplace. Their perseverance and sacrifice against overwhelming opposition were crucial to CLAC’s survival throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
CLAC’s membership grew slowly but steadily following the Ontario Supreme Court’s decision in 1963. By the start of the 1970s, a handful of full-time representatives were employed in Ontario and BC.
Legal charges, appeals, and interventions were filed by other unions before labour boards and courts whenever possible challenging CLAC’s status. CLAC’s ability to represent workers in the construction industry was hampered by non-affiliation clauses and agreements restricting work to members of other unions.
Despite the obstacles, CLAC’s beachhead on Canada’s labour front was firmly established and supported by a growing number of members—including the continued support of its general workers local members. Without their help, the board and court challenges would have overtaxed the union’s still limited financial resources.
Growth and continued support afforded CLAC the ability not only to fend off challenges but also to expand. A research and education department was established in 1970. An office was established in Edmonton in 1979.
With the establishment of comprehensive benefit and retirement plans by the end of the 1980s, CLAC had developed into a mature, full-service union, ready for the explosive growth that was to come in the next two decades.
It took CLAC nearly 40 years to reach the 10,000-member mark in 1990. But it took only 20 more years to reach 50,000. CLAC’s growth in the 1990s and 2000s was largely spurred by growth in the west, particularly in industrial construction.
CLAC also posted impressive growth in other sectors including mining, food retail, and transportation. In Ontario, CLAC emerged as one of the leading unions in healthcare. While other unions struggled with steady decline, CLAC’s progressive, member-focused model of labour relations continued to attract more and more workers.
Growth enabled CLAC to expand its member services. In the 1990s, the union began opening training centres to provide skills and safety training. Today, CLAC runs training programs from nearly every office and operates major provincial training centres in Alberta (Edmonton), British Columbia (Langley), and Ontario (Cambridge).
In the last decade, CLAC launched career services programs to help match workers with employers and employers with workers. Benefit programs 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. Along with growth has come greater recognition in the labour relations community—and even grudging respect among competitor unions.
From an upstart union founded over 60 years ago, fighting to survive, CLAC’s success is proof that its principled, service-based approach is the kind of union representation workers are looking for today—and a model for other unions to follow.