A hot economy is helping to fuel union interest across Canada, including in Alberta, the province with the fewest unionized members and the country's biggest labour shortage.

But while overall union figures remain relatively stable - union membership rose by 8,000 across the country, according to Statistics Canada data comparing the first half of 2004 to the first half of 2005 - union officials say that Canada is bucking a trend of lower numbers in other advanced industrial countries.

"Despite continental economic integration, one in every three Canadian workers is still covered by a collective agreement, more than double the proportion in the U.S., and union membership as a share of the workforce is now not far below the level of many continental European countries and exceeds that in the United Kingdom," the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) says in a 2006 report, Rowing Against the Tide: The Struggle to Raise Union Density in a Hostile Environment.

"Certainly a booming economy is good for unions as well as for workers," says CLC chief economist Andrew Jackson. "Some of the big declines for unions come in times of recession. In a more general sense, when times are good, it's certainly easier to organize workers into unions."

Photo courtesy of Harry Oosterhoff, Edmonton CLAC representative
The Christian Labour Association of Canada is operating out of its new Edmonton headquarters.

In 2005, 32 per cent of all employed Canadians had union coverage or membership, based on the latest Statistics Canada information.

The Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC), one of North America's fastest-growing unions, just opened an expanded office and training facility in Edmonton - where the CLAC says it is seeing some of its greatest membership increases.

Representing about 39,000 workers across Canada, Alberta accounts for 15,000 of those members, says Dick Heinen, CLAC's Alberta provincial director. "In Alberta, our numbers have probably doubled in the last five years."

While CLAC has found growth opportunities elsewhere across the country, he says, "there's no question we're growing faster in Alberta. There's so much work in Alberta. We're a trade union, so we go where the companies we have collective agreements with go, and more and more of the CLAC signatory companies are getting more work."

The union is also expanding in B.C. "So much of our growth is tied to the economy. We just recently experienced a lot of growth in Manitoba because people there are hearing about us," says Heinen.

The new Edmonton facility covers 30,000 sq. ft. on four acres of land, providing additional space for member services, training and a benefits office.

Heinen attributes CLAC's strength to the union's principles.

"We come at it from a different perspective than most unions do," he says. "We consider ourselves to be a values-based organization (with) a Christian social-ethics perspective, which means bringing the principles of integrity, fairness, respect and dignity to the workplace. From this starting point, CLAC can help make the workplace a better place to work.

"That's the basis on which we do business and we expect our members to be treated with those values."

He adds this translates into a labour environment that is less hostile, turning the union-employer relationship into a co-operative one, as opposed to adversarial.

Dick Heinen

"We're more solution-oriented, as opposed to conflict," says Heinen. "We want to emphasize win-win situations. We believe in the strike weapon, but we believe it's the last resort."

In CLAC's history - it dates back to 1952 - there have only been five strikes.

"We seldom get to the point where we don't get an agreement. It's not in anybody's interest to get to that point," he adds.

But even if CLAC workers decide to go on strike, Heinen points out that the final decision rests with the organization's national board. "The national board has to make the final decision as to whether to sanction a strike. They have to determine if everything that has been done to resolve the strike has been done, and that it is the last resort."

The Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), made up of 31 unions from both the public and private sectors and representing nearly 125,000 workers from across the province, is also enjoying growth.

"Our employers are growing, they're hiring more people, and more people are coming into our existing bargaining units," says president Gil McGowan.

"Our labour market is hotter than any other province and that's been good for individual workers and it's also been good news for most of our unions," he adds.

"Over the last four to five years, unionized workers have been winning good contracts for the members, better than we've seen for a long time," says McGowan.

"The tight labour market has improved our bargaining position. It's the old story of supply and demand. When something is in short supply, the price goes up - and in this case, there's a short supply of labour."

However, McGowan doesn't share the same enthusiasm about CLAC's role in the union movement.

"They say they pursue a more co-operative approach to dealing with management. That sticks in our craw," he says.

"They say traditional unions are strike-happy and exist for confrontation. That's the farthest thing from the truth. The first priority for any traditional union is to get an agreement for their members, but we won't settle for just any agreement."

Working in harmony with management is fine up to a point, he adds, "but the reality is, there will sometimes be conflict and to pretend otherwise is just sticking your head in the sand."

McGowan says CLAC is posting strong growth numbers "because they're the choice of employers. We'd be growing too if employers were inviting us in the door, but they're not. And we think unions should be the choice of employees, not employers."

However, CLAC's Heinen says in today's economic climate there should be plenty of room for everyone. "This is not a war. Union competition is a great thing. It makes everyone better, and (brings) better services for the members."

(Laura Severs can be reached at laura@businessedge.ca)