Canada Needs More CLAC
/ Author: Wayne Prins
/ Categories: Guide magazine /
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Canada Needs More CLAC

“If you want peace, cultivate justice.” With remarkable courage and resilience, CLAC members are pursuing justice every day

CLAC’s National Convention was in the planning stages long before anyone had heard of COVID-19. The pandemic changed those plans, but the convention took place virtually on October 8, 2020, with several hundred delegates and guests attending. The following is the state-of-the-union address given by Wayne Prins, CLAC executive director.

JUST OVER A YEAR AGO, I travelled to Geneva, Switzerland, with my wife, Renee. We went there to attend the Centennial International Labour Conference.

I was there on behalf of the World Organization of Workers (WOW), which is an organization of unions from around the world that share CLAC’s vision for workers and the workplace. I serve as the president of this organization, and in that capacity, I was honoured to have the opportunity to address the General Assembly of the International Labour Organization (ILO) at the UN.

While we were visiting the UN in Geneva, I came to really appreciate the history and role of the ILO in particular.

I want to take you back in time 101 years. The excruciating years of the First World War had just come to an end. In the aftermath of the Great War, the world was attempting to reassemble some sense of order. There was at that time an outcry for social justice, and workers were demanding better conditions and more respect.

Adding to the unrest was a global pandemic—the Spanish Flu. In many ways, the Spanish Flu resembled what we face today with COVID—fear, social isolation, economic shutdowns, even controversy over mandatory masks.

All of which is to say people were on edge and change was in the air.

Any of this sounding familiar?

The Great War ended in November 1918, and in January 1919, the great minds of the day came together in what is known as the Paris Peace Conference. The purpose of this conference was to establish the conditions for lasting peace and stability.

Knowing that labour is a fundamental pillar of society, one of the lasting achievements of the Paris Peace Conference was the birth of the International Labour Organization, the founding motto of which was
“if you want peace, cultivate justice.”

What a profound guiding truth from 100 years ago, and it remains true today: justice is the foundation for peace.

THE WORLD TODAY IS A troubled place. I really don’t want to dwell on the negatives, but just take a moment to consider our surroundings.

There is unrest in our streets and communities. Systemic injustices, inequality, environmental degradation and climate change, economic hardship, political vitriol. The list could go on.

There is unrest in our workplaces. Workers are nervous about the future. Workers are worried about their health and safety. Many workers face systemic barriers and are simply not getting ahead.

And there is unrest among people. We have a mental health crisis. People are isolated, lonely, and anxious. Drugs are killing more people than COVID. Social media, among other things, is driving the polarization of society, and our addiction to digital personas and communication have rendered too many people incapable of civil dialogue and empathy.

In commemoration of CLAC’s 50th anniversary, Ed Grootenboer, a former CLAC executive director, wrote a book profiling the history and character of our union. The title of that book is called In Pursuit of Justice. It’s a brilliant title—there is no better phrase to capture the underpinnings of this organization.

We are, and always have been, a movement inspired and animated by the pursuit of justice.

Herein lies the opportunity for CLAC, not just to continue our work in seeking justice, but to amplify it in response to the desperate need for justice in the world today.

The question becomes how?

LET’S BEGIN WITH PEOPLE. If we want peace in the hearts, minds, and lives of people, we must cultivate justice there.

Justice for people means many things, but most fundamentally it is about honouring, preserving, and celebrating the inherent dignity and equality of all people.

There are a few things that come to mind that CLAC is doing in pursuit of justice for people.

We can all be incredibly proud of the work CLAC has done to raise awareness of mental health, to destigmatize mental health diseases and injuries, and to provide support for those with mental health issues.

We have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars for the delivery of mental health first aid training [MHFA]. We have set a goal to ensure that someone in every workplace where CLAC represents workers across the country has training in MHFA. With this training, they will be equipped to identify potential mental health issues in their work communities and know how to seek help for those who need it.

We’ve worked with governments to formally recognize June 27 as PTSI Awareness Day, and we’ve championed the Teal Ribbon campaign particularly on behalf of first responders who frequently experience posttraumatic stress injuries in their line of work.

At the root of this campaign is an effort to change the language from PTSD—posttraumatic stress disorder, to PTSI—posttraumatic stress injury. This change serves to destigmatize PTSIs and recognize that mental health issues resulting from trauma are injuries needing critical care—no different than a broken leg.

In response to COVID-19, we extended our employee and family assistance program [EFAP] coverage to all members. Whether they were working or not, and whether their benefits plan included an EFAP or not, we made EFAP coverage available to everyone.

We also have a team of case managers who assist our members struggling with substance abuse and addictions. Lezlie McCall, Cheryl Andrews, and Rae-anna Koenig do incredible work for our members in the most vulnerable times in their lives.

In response to COVID, when availability of residential treatment became limited, they developed a customized one-on-one care program where they worked individually with our members through their treatment and recovery. It’s just a beautiful example of providing the most meaningful, personal care when members need it most—and the success stories are truly inspiring.

Through the CLAC Foundation, we have partnered with a variety of organizations that work to equip the homeless with skills to enter the workforce and the essential tools and clothing needed for showing up to work. Through developing skills and finding work, we help to foster dignity, confidence, and new purpose in individuals who previously felt hopeless.

And through this, we’re breaking the cycle of poverty. The work of our foundation extends beyond our borders too, helping workers in developing countries provide for themselves and their families, and advocating for just labour laws to protect vulnerable workers.

Pursuing justice for people often means working on behalf of the most vulnerable among us, extending respect and love in unexpected ways.

LET’S TALK ABOUT WORKPLACES. If we want peace in our workplaces, we must cultivate justice in our workplaces.

Workplaces are our specialty. Justice in the workplace is ultimately the reason why CLAC exists, and it’s at the heart of all we do.

Shortly before COVID arrived, I attended a roundtable discussion in Washington, DC, where we examined the future of the labour movement in North America. It was a fascinating conversation with some of the leading voices of labour.

Now, to be sure, there are significant differences between the labour movement in America and the labour movement here in Canada, and certainly their political structure and discourse is very different than ours. But we also share some very relevant similarities in economic, political, and social dynamics.

One notable similarity is a growing recognition by all parties on the political and economic spectrum that unfettered capitalism miserably fails the vast majority of workers. The increasing concentration of wealth among the ultrawealthy, contrasted with the declining real income of the majority of the workforce, is intolerable and requires intervention and correction.

Having said that, the resurgence of socialist ideals in response to this imbalance is not the right antidote. In America, prominent political figures proudly identify themselves as socialists, and they speak openly about what that means, both politically and socially.

A Canadian parallel is reflected in acts of government that seek to control the marketplace, such as the BC government’s use of exclusive community benefits agreements that restrict access to publicly funded work and reward their friends.

Another example is when traditional unions and governments seek to control the nation’s social agenda by reverting to social activism and passing strict social policies. Let me be very clear about this. When a government, or a union, declares itself as the social and economic architect of a nation, beware!

Replacing one form of extremism with another is never a good thing, and it is most certainly not the road to justice.

I’ve heard it said that the world needs more Canada, and I agree. But I’m far more enthusiastic about the notion that Canada needs more CLAC.

Justice in the workplace is achieved when workers have a voice and a choice in who represents them, when they enjoy a safe work environment, the freedom to put their skills and minds to the task at hand, and are rewarded for good performance.

Justice in the workplace is reflected in fair wages, good benefits, and provision for a happy and secure retirement. Justice in the work community is best achieved in the context of a collaborative relationship between labour and management, where workers are viewed as equals and are treated with respect, and disputes are resolved in a timely and consistent manner.

These are the hallmarks of a member-focussed union, and they are the standards that we aspire to for CLAC and our members.

I’m reminded of the relentless pursuit for justice in the long term care sector in Ontario. For so many years, we have talked about the lack of respect in this sector, the most obvious consequences of which are inadequate funding, low wages, and understaffing. Some of you have lived through those years, and for you this is deeply personal.

CLAC has engaged with the highest levels of government in Ontario on this issue, and we celebrate the long-awaited recognition and reward that has been recently announced in Ontario for PSWs. Finally, some justice in your workplace.

To those delegates who work in that sector as PSWs, congratulations, and thank you for your incredible work! There is still work left to do on issues regarding adequate PPE necessary to protect workers from COVID and more fairness for all workers in the long term care sector, but still it is good to know that we’ve made progress.

I also think about our construction and skilled trades members across this country. We are immensely proud that CLAC members build and maintain so much of the infrastructure that Canadians rely on every day, from roads and hospitals and schools and water treatment plants to the homes we live in and the facilities that produce the energy and products that allow us to live our lives. Your livelihoods ebb and flow with the state of the economy, and we do our very best to ensure your next job is waiting for you and that wherever you are working your wages reflect the value of your contribution to society.

I think of the hundreds of educational assistants and librarians and those who clean the schools and transport children safely to and from school in Manitoba. In these COVID times, the work of our educational workers is high risk and so incredibly important. We salute each and every one of you for the work you do—always, but particularly in the midst of today’s challenges.

I think of the thousands of grocery, retail, transportation, and food processing workers. While many people can stay isolated and safe, away from crowds, these members dutifully reported to work so the rest of us have access to our daily necessities. What incredible acts of service to their community.

We lament the ongoing hardship of our members who remain out of work due to COVID. I’m thinking particularly of those in the hospitality and entertainment sector in BC. The devastation of the entire industry will take years to recover from, and the human toll is immense.

So when I say that Canada needs more CLAC, what I’m suggesting is that Canadians generally, and workers more specifically, are best served by a moderate but strong, competent, and compassionate labour movement focussed on worker advocacy and workplace justice.

Each time I hear our competitors from the traditional labour movement accuse us of being “employer friendly”—and I’ve heard this many times—I think to myself, how foolish! I suppose they believe it’s better to be “employer unfriendly”?!

Show me the worker who is well served by a suffering employer. And tell me what joy and fulfillment is found working in the midst of tension and acrimony and endless conflict. Yet this is the prevailing wisdom of the mainstream labour movement in Canada.

Does Canada need more CLAC? Absolutely! And not a moment too soon.

We are created to live in harmonious community. Human beings flourish when we work together in pursuit of shared interests and common goals.

Yes, this may sound idealistic, and yes, it is true that now and then we’ll encounter a situation that can only be resolved with a good fight. When that moment comes, we’ll be ready to fight.

But our default is cooperation, and our bias is turned toward seeking common ground. This is how justice is found for the workplace.

FINALLY, LET’S TALK ABOUT OUR streets and communities. If we want peace in our streets and in our communities, we must cultivate justice there.

Issues of justice at a societal level are many, and they are complex.

I think back to two National Conventions ago when we passed a resolution regarding environmental responsibility. In the years since, I will say we have struggled to engage government or industry or even our own staff and members in ways to affect meaningful progress in our pursuit of environmental sustainability.

Having said that, CLAC members are busy building some of the largest clean energy projects in the country, from wind and solar farms to hydroelectric projects, which is fantastic.

I am encouraged and optimistic about the resolution passed earlier today regarding supporting women in the skilled trades. This is an important issue for CLAC to champion.

The issue of gender inequality permeates almost every corner of society. That institutions, governments, employers, and individuals are finally embracing a commitment to removing systemic barriers and paving the way to equal opportunity is worth celebrating.

On this front CLAC is making meaningful progress, both internally and on behalf of our members. Yet there is more progress to be made.

But perhaps the most poignant issue of justice in society today is that of racial justice. Shortly after George Floyd was murdered by bad cops on a street in Minneapolis, we convened a time of prayer and reflection for CLAC staff. It was held by video conference just like we’re meeting today, and for those who attended it was a powerful and moving experience.

Since then, we’ve started an internal book study of Robin Diangelo’s book called White Fragility. Coming to terms with the forms of systemic discrimination and oppression that exist even here in our beloved and diverse Canada is a difficult journey. But if we are to find peace in our streets and in our communities, it’s a journey we must travel.

While Canadians of every colour encounter racism in this country, the predominant story of racial injustice here is rooted in Canada’s Indigenous people.

I have two young daughters, a five-year-old and an eight-year-old. They were excited to wear their orange shirts to school on Sept 30. At the breakfast table before their bus ride to school, we talked about what the orange shirt meant.

If you don’t know, orange shirt day is a day to commemorate and remember the damage and suffering caused among Canada’s Indigenous people by the residential school system. It began with the story of Phyllis Webstad, who, as a six-year-old, was taken from her parents and brought to a residential school in northern BC.

When she arrived, they took away her brand new and cherished orange shirt that her grandmother had given her. It’s a heartbreaking story that serves as a simple illustration of the needless and cruel and denigrating history of systemic racism that shapes our culture and continues in various forms to this day.

With the resolution passed earlier today, we have committed ourselves to looking for ways to address systemic racism in the workplaces of Canada. This will be our contribution to what needs to be a nationwide effort to address systemic racism in all its forms.

If COVID hadn’t happened, we would have been meeting together in Victoria at this very moment. It would have been beautiful, and it would have been great to be there with all of you.

One of the events that we had planned for delegates was a presentation by local Indigenous leaders who were to speak about their experiences of life in Canada and, more specifically, their experiences of systemic racism. It would have been a moving and important discussion, and we hope to have another opportunity to hear it some day.

As you heard earlier, the gift we have prepared for delegates to this National Convention is an umbrella covered in beautiful Indigenous art. This gift was inspired by this theme.

Of course, we hope the umbrella will keep you dry in a rainstorm. But we also hope it will serve as a reminder to look for ways in your life to interrupt systemic racism and take steps toward racial justice.

TAKEN ALTOGETHER, THE PURSUIT of justice can seem overwhelming. So I want to leave you with some encouragement.

It’s not on each of us to fix all on our own. In fact, it’s possible your greatest contribution to our collective pursuit of justice is simply a daily act of kindness or service to one other person. One human being showing love and grace to another.

If we only realized how easy it was to make someone else’s day better, we’d take more care to find ways to serve each other every day—at home, in our workplace, or anywhere in between.

We have heard about the remarkable activities and courage and resilience of CLAC members across the country. We have witnessed the strength and capacity of our staff and elected officials. We have reviewed our financial fortitude and have reflected on our growing public influence.

The state of the union is incredibly strong, and we have never been better positioned to use our size and resources and vision to make Canada a better place for everyone. This is the opportunity that lies before us, and the pursuit of this opportunity will be what strengthens our union in the years to come.

Toward Justice

At every convention, delegates discuss and vote on a number of resolutions in the pursuit of justice in the workplace

THE CLAC NATIONAL CONVENTION HAS the ultimate responsibility for CLAC’s overall activity and for ensuring that CLAC’s conduct is in harmony with its constitution. Conventions are held every three years and are comprised of delegates from the union’s locals, National Board, and staff.

Along with electing members to the National Board and reviewing various proposals, reports from the locals, and financial statements, delegates to the convention also review resolutions submitted for discussion and adoption. Resolutions that are adopted by the convention represent CLAC’s formal expression of opinion or intention on an issue. They are often addressed to governments or to the union itself and usually urge a particular course of action for them to take toward achieving justice for members and all workers.

Delegates discussed and adopted five resolutions at this year’s convention. Following are four of them. The fifth one, on ending racial discrimination in the workplace, will be featured in an upcoming issue of the Guide.

1. Concerning Supporting women in the skilled trades

For many years, women have faced barriers in their pursuit of a career in the skilled trades. These barriers come in many forms, and they exist within both the education system and the industries that employ skilled tradespeople.

In recent years, progress has been made in removing barriers that previously prevented many women from pursuing the skilled trades as a vocation.

•  The education system, starting in grade school, now promotes a career in the skilled trades as an exciting and rewarding choice for everyone.

•  Public policy has shifted toward a more inclusive framework for skilled trades education and employment supports.

•  The industries that employ skilled tradespeople have adopted zero tolerance policies for harassment and inappropriate material and behaviour.

•  Employers have modified their workplace facilities to accommodate a larger contingent of women in the skilled trades.

These are all positive steps of progress, yet women still only represent 4.5 percent of skilled trades workers in Canada. Increasing the participation level of women in the skilled trades has many benefits:

•  The industries that rely on skilled tradespeople are facing an endemic labour shortage in the years to come.

•  There is evidence of a strong correlation between productivity and quality of work and the participation of women in crews of skilled tradespeople.

•  A career in the skilled trades creates lucrative and sustainable job opportunities for women.

Supporting Women in Trades is an initiative of the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum. It is a national strategy to create sustainable and measurable change for women working in the skilled trades. The pillars of the strategy include hiring more women apprentices, providing workplace education for women in skilled trades, and ensuring safe workplaces for women as well as all other underrepresented groups.

IT IS THE RESOLUTION OF THIS CONVENTION that CLAC fully endorse and participate in the Supporting Women in Trades initiative and, by doing so, create more employment opportunities for women in the skilled trades. Further, that CLAC engage a council of CLAC tradeswomen to advise the union in pursuit of the resolution.

2. Concerning Protection for workers in the midst of COVID-19

In little more than six months, the daily reality for every worker in Canada has changed dramatically in ways that prior to this pandemic no one could have imagined. In response to the initial spread and threat of COVID-19 in Canada, workplaces across the country were closed and the economy was effectively shut down. Unemployment rates skyrocketed. Millions of Canadians who could do so began working from home.

But those who continue to report to a workplace face numerous interventions and restrictions designed to protect them and their customers, clients, residents, or patients from the spread of COVID-19. Despite great efforts to ensure the safety of everyone, workplaces remain a primary source of new infections.

As a result, employers are obligated to immediately remove from the workplace any person with symptoms of COVID-19 or any person who has come into contact with a confirmed or probable case of COVID-19. For many hourly wage earners, this means an immediate cessation of earnings until they are permitted to return to work.

In addition to the financial hardship caused by unemployment and lost earnings, the pandemic has had an incalculable impact on the mental health of Canadians. Social isolation, loss of loved ones, illness, fear of infection, and uncertainty for the future are but a few of the contributing factors to the mental health crisis unfolding from COVID-19. The devastating mental health impacts are sure to outlive the virus by many years.

Given the wide variety and long term nature of the threats to workers in the midst of COVID-19, protections are urgently needed for their physical, financial, and mental health.

IT IS THE RESOLUTION OF THIS CONVENTION that CLAC contribute to the protection of workers during the pandemic by adopting the following three initiatives:

  1. For the protection of workers’ mental health, CLAC will initiate partnerships with employers and governments to provide access to mental health first aid training in every workplace where CLAC represents workers. This will ensure early identification and help for those experiencing mental health challenges.
  2. For the protection of workers’ physical health, CLAC will initiate partnerships with employers and government to secure the provision of and access to proper personal protective equipment and alterations of workplaces to ensure workers are protected from the spread of COVID-19.
  3. For the protection of employment and earnings, CLAC will engage with employers and lobby governments to secure paid sick leave for workers infected with COVID-19 and income support for those workers who lose earnings due to coming into contact with a confirmed or probable case of COVID-19, have symptoms of COVID-19, or are caring for a family member or dependent for reasons related to COVID-19.

3. Concerning The need to identify and track CLAC initiatives aimed at supporting real community benefits agreements

Community benefits agreements (CBAs) are features of bid tender and construction and service procurement activities that attempt to leverage public expenditures to achieve broader policy objectives and produce benefits within targeted communities. CBAs can take various forms and often provide employment and apprenticeship opportunities for local workers, women, Indigenous people, and other underrepresented groups.

Some governments have been lobbied to use CBAs to restrict access to infrastructure projects to workers who are members of the international Building Trades Unions. Such restrictive CBAs create unreasonable exclusivity and unwarranted project cost overruns. They create a very limited and singular approach to workforce inclusion and diversity efforts, overlooking and ignoring many other types of workforce training and diversity investments by construction community stakeholders.

In recent years, CLAC and its industry partners have sought to educate governments and influencers of public policy on different types of community benefits efforts and to make clear that some models make for poor public policy. But much remains to be done.

IT IS THE RESOLUTION OF THIS CONVENTION that CLAC, through it’s National Construction Committee, undertake a survey of all initiatives aimed at increasing the number of local hires, apprentices, women, Indigenous workers, and other underrepresented groups on all construction projects that our members work on. Where the data collected identifies gaps, the committee should request the resources needed to develop initiatives to fill them.

Furthermore, CLAC will continue to look for ways to track this data to be used to further its efforts to advocate for community benefits agreements that result in good public policy that produces measurable social benefit outcomes and that also preserves the principle of fair and open tendering.

4. Concerning The urgent need to provide a permanent and immediate pay increase for workers in long term care, and implement the 2020 Long-Term Care Staffing Study recommendations

Workers in Ontario’s long term care (LTC) homes provide care and support to 78,000 residents every day. This number has not changed significantly in the past two decades, even while the population ages.

The resulting demand for LTC beds means that only those with the highest and most pressing care needs are admitted. The increase in resident acuity needs have not been met with increased staffing levels. Important physical and mental health needs are neglected as a result.

The hollowing out of the healthcare work has led to a crisis. Our members work short nearly every day, and in the last 10 years have seen their real dollar earnings decreased. Recent studies have shown a near 25 percent turnover in staff every year.

In 2020, COVID-19 shone a light on an already dire situation, and revealed to Ontarians the state of disrepair that long term care is in. In recent months, the province has committed to, and taken active steps to fast track, the development of new long term care beds. CLAC has applauded these announcements, however, this new capacity will result in increased labour market pressures for facilities that are already painfully understaffed.

IT IS THE RESOLUTION OF THIS CONVENTION that CLAC petition the Ontario government to

  1. Provide a permanent pay increase for PSWs in hospitals and to all hourly staff in homecare and long term care to ensure labour market competitiveness for this sector.
  2. Commit to an action plan to contend with the various recommendations of the Ministry of Long-Term Care’s 2020 Long-Term Care Staffing Study, with particular priority for the following:

•  Mandate a four hour per day hands-on care standard.

•  Establish a guideline of one PSW on shift per every six residents.

•  Reduce the reporting burden on front-line staff by streamlining and economizing data collection activities, and also provide the resources to invest in information technology infrastructure that will facilitate real-time data collection.

Furthermore, CLAC will commit to continuing its work to address the inadequacy of the current interest arbitration system (under the Hospital Labour Disputes Arbitration Act) to produce fair and equitable decisions for all.

CLAC National Board

Three National Board members retired this year and three new board members were elected. We thank outgoing board members Irma Friesen, Bert Van Niejenhuis, and John Kamphof for their years of dedicated service and welcome new board members Dick Heinen, Margaret Kyle, and Kallu Manzoul.

Your New National Board 
Hank Beekhuis
Henk de Zoete
Dick Heinen
Neil Houtman
Chris Janzen
Margaret Kyle
Kallu Manzoul
Roland Medina
Alice Nicholson
Co Vanderlaan

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