The Merit Shop Lie

By Martin, Pat | Canadian Dimension, September 1990 | Go to article overview

The Merit Shop Lie


Martin, Pat, Canadian Dimension


On March 30, 1990, some 700 building trades workers demonstrated in front of the Banff Springs Hotel.

Inside the opulent meeting rooms, between recreational diversions, hundreds of construction industry leaders listened with interest as they were introduced to a "new" concept in construction industry labour relations -- the "Merit Shop" system, also known as "open shop" or "right to work."

The idea is by no means new. In the USA, the Associated Business Contractors have been successfully touting "open shop" for over thirty years. However, never before has it been so attractively packaged and so aggressively and openly marketed. Inflammatory language that might smack of overt union-busting has been culled in order to render the concept more palatable to a Canadian market which, until now, has been more tolerant of unions and worker's rights in general.

Over three days of wining and dining and bobbing in the heated pool, proponents of the "Merit Shop" system aggressively hammered home the message that it is no longer necessary to rely on unionized workers to build major construction projects. The "Merit Shop" can supply all the skilled trades people required. Millar McKinnon of the Alberta Merit Shop Association called the package "a vision of the future," and heralded the "right to work" with or without a union as a "moral issue."

Outside, busloads of vocal protesters were greeted by food crews serving coffee and donuts. Brothers and sisters sporting banners and union caps and jackets surrounded a podium and listened to speakers from the Canadian Building Trades Council, the BC Federation of Labour, The Canadian Labour Congress, the Alberta Federation of Labour and a number of individual unions. All brought similar messages: that the Merit Shop is a lie and a well orchestrated conspiracy designed to minimize workers' benefits and rights.

Inside, a different scene was unfolding. Delegates enjoyed a none-too-taxing agenda combining business with pleasure including, appropriately, a medieval theme dinner. They were addressed by a disturbing assembly of keynote speakers, including the Alberta minister of labour, Elaine McCoy; John Crispo from the University of Toronto; Edward C. Kennedy, the CEO of B.E. and K. (the foremost anti-union contractor in the United States and the object of a huge international campaign by the Building Trades Unions); and the executive director of the Business Round Table, Richard Kibben.

Crispo, who has a long involvement with unionized workers' benefit plans, was asked to boycott the conference. He responded by saying that if we would pay him his $5,000 speaker's fee, he would not attend. We wouldn't; he did.

Who are they?

The Merit Shop Contractors Association was incorporated in 1986 under Part 9 of the Alberta Companies Act. They are declared a nonprofit company. Their executive includes representatives from high profile unionized construction companies such as P.C.L., Ellis-Don and Cana Construction, as well as from vehemently anti-union companies such as Stuart Olson and Maxam (a P.C.L. spin-off).

Equally disturbing is a well-publicized policy paper circulated to attract new member companies. This paper features a number of objectives that clearly indicate that the Merit Shop goes beyond a wish to provide a labour broker service to its membership. They are on an ideological crusade to eradicate the presence of unions in the construction industry.

Listed below are some objectives taken from the Merit Shop's own literature:

ITEM: Promote the application of "Merit" in the compensation of employees.

TRANSLATION: Pay workers whatever the employer thinks they are worth, not a freely negotiated, standardized wage.

ITEM: Develop programs related to recruitment, performance, training and manner of remuneration of workers.

TRANSLATION: Take these items out of the control of workers, their unions or the government.

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