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Industry Perspectives: Pioneering Canada’s alternative construction labour model

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The next time you’re driving down a highway, crossing a bridge, working in a highrise office tower, or pumping fuel that came via pipelines, take a moment to think about the people who built it.

Everything we see and touch was designed, engineered and built over the decades by Canada’s highly skilled construction workforce.

From Calgary’s Bow skyscraper and Vancouver’s Sea-to-Sky Highway to Surrey’s Port Mann Bridge and the oilsands projects, many of Canada’s mega infrastructure and resource projects have been built by members of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA) and their labour partner CLAC.

As the pioneers of a different approach to building in Canada, they’ve shaped our landscape and succeeded in redefining our country’s construction labour movement.

In the years that followed the Second World War, a group of European immigrants arrived in Canada to unfamiliar labour territory. In the world of labour relations, their basic Christian social principles translated into a co-operative approach to workplace issues. It wasn’t long before these new Canadians realized that Canada’s trade union movement wasn’t for them.

It was aggressive and adversarial between employers and workers. Although unions had made great strides in improving conditions and protections for workers, these new Canadians set out to create something different — an alternative labour union that facilitated a co-operative partnership between management and labour.

This was viewed as an anti-establishment approach to labour relations that attracted strong resistance.

"They spent years struggling to exist," said Wayne Prins, CLAC’s executive director. "There was hostile opposition from the get-go. That hostility came from labour board staff with union backgrounds, people who occupied bureaucratic positions, politicians and the building trades who have a long history of trying to interfere with CLAC."

During the construction boom of the 1950s and ’60s there was considerable labour turmoil. Strikes were common, workplace injuries rampant and jurisdictional disputes frequent. Back then, Canada’s construction industry consisted of two pillars: unionized construction and non-union.

The choice, if you were in the industry, was not much choice at all. It was either an unorganized non-union world for certain work or a monopoly shop for major projects. That was about to change.

In 1952, after years of loose worker affiliations, representatives from four Ontario local groups met at a London Ont. YMCA to create a national organization. The real turning point, however, was in 1963 when the Ontario Supreme Court overruled an Ontario Labour Relations Board ruling that denied CLAC the ability to certify Tange Construction Company. That decision opened a crack in the two pillars of Canada’s construction industry and opened the door to a third, the progressive unionized labour model that exists today.

"At the time there was growing frustration on the part of employers who’d become unionized by the building trades," said Paul de Jong, president of the PCA. "They were weary of delays and disputes and were looking for greater flexibility and productivity."

As the industry moved into the 1990s and early 2000s and resource development took off, what was once the two-pillar system gave way to another. The third pillar of construction emerged as a model where workers were unionized, but not captive to the outmoded ideological battle between workers and management.  Construction employers and CLAC found ways to innovatively work together to complete projects on time and on budget, while respecting the rights, safety and incomes of workers. While CLAC membership was encouraged it wasn’t mandatory.

"This divergent, collaborative approach to labour relations appealed to several companies who succeeded in building large industrial and infrastructure projects with this alternative form of labour," added de Jong. "It brought together skilled workers with different skillsets who worked as a team, creating greater efficiencies."

Over the past 15 years, major owners including Suncor, Husky and Imperial Oil have brought on contractors who were signatory to CLAC. The rest, de Jong says, is history with the founding of the PCA in 2000.

It’s now the voice of more than 100 unionized employers across Canada, while CLAC’s national membership has grown to nearly 60,000 workers.

PCA and CLAC began as small players, whose progressive labour model has been embraced by some of the largest construction and energy companies in the country. Their approach is likely to gain even broader appeal as Canada’s construction industry works to improve productivity and become more competitive and innovative over the next 150 years.

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