Dordt College News

A union that works

August 17, 2011

A Union That Works

In a time of contentious labor relations, Frank Zee is part of an alternative model

What have you done since leaving Dordt?

It seems like just yesterday that Marlys and I packed up our ’69 Mustang and headed north to the Canadian/U.S. border leaving Dordt and Sioux Center to be married and to start our own adventure in God’s great world.  We spent our honeymoon year (1971) in the Fraser Valley, in British Columbia. Marlys became a floral designer, and I worked as a drywaller. 

In the spring of ’72, I ran into trouble with the trade unions. They demanded that I join, and I resisted. Soon they were blocking my ability to earn a living. I felt that a person should be able to choose what organizations he should belong to. To make a long story short, Marlys and I were invited to farm with her folks in La Glace, so we moved there, bought a quarter section of land with a little old house on it and started farming. I continued to drywall residential and commercial buildings.

When our hog barns burned to the ground in 1984, we were faced with one of those major crossroads that God puts in your life from time to time. I had the opportunity to work at the local Grande Prairie College as an instructor in the trades and technologies department, teaching a course called “Women in Non Traditional Occupations.” It was an exciting adventure, teaching carpentry, electricity, welding, automotive mechanics, and machining basics plus academic upgrading and life skills to a group of mature students eager to learn a new way to earn a living.

I returned to university to earn a degree in adult education and continued teaching English at the college level for many years. In the meantime, Marlys continued her floral design career, and we raised four children. We were busy—church, school, hockey, ringette, farming, working, teaching, building a house—much the same as everyone else was doing in the neighbourhood. La Glace was good to us.

In 1997, the Grande Prairie Regional College moved and needed fewer English teachers. Our family was grown by now, so we looked for new adventures. We decided to move to Edmonton. After working as a planned giving officer at The King’s University-College for several years, I moved to CLAC (Christian Labour Association of Canada).

Marlys worked for the Alberta Department of Education as a receptionist, finally leaving her floral designing career behind and then, recently, became an assistant to the Parish Vicars, curates, deans, and deacons of the All-Saints Anglican Church in Edmonton. It is a position she thoroughly enjoys as she learns more about these brothers and sisters in the faith and expands her knowledge in the rituals and ceremonies of this long standing faith community.

Our four children, Nathan, Geordin, Janna, and Timothy all live in Alberta, and we are blessed with four grandchildren (so far). They are all busy with their occupations and raising families in their communities.

What is CLAC?

CLAC is a union; it develops relationships between people and companies. It negotiates collective agreements that govern wages, hours of work, overtime, lay-off procedures, grievance procedures, arbitrations, training, and a host of other particulars that establish a relationship between the union and the signatory companies. 

Economics and labour in North America have been topics of much discussion in the past few years. The United States has seen incredible changes and experienced huge challenges. Employees lose their jobs. GM goes broke. Banks fail. Houses devalue. The workforce suffers, and the nation hurts.

CLAC deals with similar issues in Canada. It concerns itself with employees and employers. However CLAC is not like other unions, and the other International Unions look at us as a plague in the work force. We are different, and we approach labour in a totally different manner from what is the norm in North America. (

What drew you to CLAC and what keeps you there?

CLAC is principle driven. It applies Christian social principles of justice, respect, and dignity to the workplace community. It provides a constructive model for labour relations. It works together with management to seek solutions and possibilities that will benefit all. CLAC supports workers’ freedom of association, and does not force membership, and yet will still represent all workers in the bargaining unit. And, CLAC does not support a particular political party or any candidate, believing that individuals should be free to follow their own conscience.

CLAC views the workplace differently than most trade unions in North America. CLAC believes in facilitating productive dialogue rather than adversarial relations, to strengthen rather than fracture relationships between employers and employees, and to cooperate and serve long term rather than short term interests.

The fact that CLAC advocates a “wall to wall” bargaining unit, which means that all trades are recognized under one collective agreement, is unique. This dispels the jurisdictional boundaries other unions have created, and allows for a much more harmonious work place. Labour unions use the term jurisdiction to refer to their claims to represent workers who perform a certain type of work and the right of their members to perform such work. For example, the International Brotherhood of Carpenters and Jointers will claim jurisdiction for framing houses. If anyone else, such as a labourer with the Laborers’ International Union of North America, tries to frame houses, it may cause a jurisdictional dispute. This practice leads to adversarial, confrontational, and self-serving actions. These factors have made CLAC the fastest (and only) growing union in Canada. In a time when there is so much distrust, economic wrangling, and labour tension in North America, CLAC stands out as an alternative solution for progressive labour relations which can help our economy to grow again. 

Alberta leads the way in economic recovery in Canada, and in Alberta it is the gas and oil sector that is creating the largest impact in the community. CLAC has approximately 15,000 workers working in that sector alone. The resulting products are shipped directly to the USA, our main trading partner. So, CLAC is where the action is, and I would not miss it for the world, because it is a wonderful place to work. We know we make a difference at every level of engagement.

What do you do?

I am CLAC’s director of training for the province of Alberta. Last year alone we provided more than 14,000 health and safety courses and skills acquisition courses which included such things as first aid, aerial platform, skid steer, defensive driving, scaffolding, and many more.

Skills are hard to come by. For example, the most at risk group of workers who are injured or killed on the job are those with the least experience—young workers. Not only does CLAC provide safety training for workers, but it also provides skill courses and works with employers on health and safety committees to make sure that safety programs are developed, implemented, and enforced.

Who do you represent in CLAC—only Christians?

We are often asked the question: “Do you have to be a Christian to be a member of CLAC?” We would love it if everyone in the working world was a professing believer in Jesus, but that is often not the case. The aim at CLAC is to represent Christ in the workplace, and to reflect Christian values in how we interact with people, how we “do” labour relations. And so we represent people through collective agreements who may or may not be Christians, but who may experience something special in their place of work because of what CLAC stands for. 

CLAC represents many different labour sectors: industrial and commercial construction, health care, education, emergency services, hospitality manufacturing, mining, pipelines, transportation, retail, and more. CLAC–organized contractors employ some of the most skilled workers in the world. They built many of the 2010 Winter Olympic venues near Vancouver. They are extracting oil from the oil sands, building clean hydro and wind energy projects, harvesting Canadian diamonds, digging for gold, and making our drinking water safe. We are anticipating a workforce shortfall of 10 to 15 thousand workers in Alberta alone in the next five years, and recruitment and advertising for skilled people to fill these jobs is already under way.

How has your Dordt education helped shape you?

Even after 40 years, the unique experience I had at Dordt is the foundation from which my thinking and my doing things stems. It gave me a world and life view so strong and bold, and so grounded in the Word that it shows in everything both Marlys and I do. It affects how we think, how we speak, and how we conduct ourselves in our community. It has made us what we are today—children of God, working in his community.

Any lasting memories you’d be willing to share?

I had the privilege of working with Dr. James Koldenhoven on several drama productions, specifically student directing Cyrano de Bergerac. That was one of the great performances at Dordt during that time. Another one was Jean Paul Sartre’s “No Exit.” I came back three weeks early in August 1970 to help produce this work of “angst,” which played the first or second week in September. The administration decided that it was too heavy and would not let first-year students see it in fear that it would be too dramatic and leave a negative impact.

Who can forget Professor Hebden Taylor and the volumes of paper he would produce for his political science classes or possibly scouting him at Doc’s after work.

Vander Stelt and Van Dyk were my favourite philosophy instructors, and were primarily the ones who instilled the world and life view still relevant today. I was part of that very first hockey team—the Blades—with the very best looking uniforms in the state. And we played some fairly good hockey, too.

They say that you create memories consciously. I can certainly say that Dordt provided both Marlys and me with vivid memories that are still bright today, as we enjoy the life God has given us.

Media Access: Download Word Version | High Resolution Image: 1