Can there be a Christian labour union?

Christian Labour Association of Canada’s non-adversarial approach increasingly popular, but misunderstood

The concept of a Christian labour union goes to the heart of all sorts of stereotypes.

Mention “union” and Mennonite in the same sentence, and you could find yourself in uncharted waters. Nowadays, it’s definitely less popular than talking about sex.

As evangelicals, Mennonite Brethren businesspeople have traditionally steered clear of the dirty word. One reason is that business is our forte, and not politics – especially anything that smacks of Soviet socialism and the memory it evokes.

Despite the old-school Menno line that deemed unions “separate societies” vying for church attendance, some MBs have begun to see the value in advocating for Christian principles in the workplace in a way that focuses not just on personal piety, but on biblically based justice and conflict resolution between workers and management.

Enter the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC). Since 1952, this union has broken all the stereotypes, and is increasingly popular despite our country’s rapid secularization. This popularity is ruffling feathers on both sides. To the Canadian Labour Congress (an affiliation of unions across the country) CLAC is “one of our most serious and pernicious challenges.” This is because CLAC rejects an adversarial approach to management relations and is therefore not “in solidarity” with workers against management – one force against another. They’re labelled as right-wing ideologues by the left, and a wolf in sheep’s clothing by the right.

It’s no wonder CLAC’s former executive director Ed Grootenboer described the challenge of forming a Christian union as comparable to, “single-handedly tackling the Atlantic Ocean in a rowboat.” In a time when there were no Christian social institutions to speak of, a bunch of Dutch Reformed workers decided a power struggle, class-analysis approach to resolving disputes wasn’t faithful to their calling. Now they’re the fastest growing union in Canada.

Mennonite Economic Development Associate’s Wally Kroeker says CLAC is an effort to “do for labour what MEDA does for business.” By this he means they try to see work through Christian eyes. In our day and age, as men and women identify themselves first by “what they do” before talking about their faith, it seems a welcome addition. Now that tight-knit communities have broken down, our primary source of fellowship is often our place of work, not our place of worship.

Mennonites weren’t totally out to lunch when they cast a suspicious eye to unions as secret societies. To this day, many union rallies are held on Sundays, highlighting their indifference to religion. However, the consequence was that evangelicals often sided with management in labour disputes simply out of fear of Cold-War socialist infiltrators, crime rackets, and worldliness.

Though unions have garnered headlines for violence and corruption, we owe a great deal to them. If you have a pension plan, a 40-hour workweek, and equal rights as a woman, you can thank these mainline union “revolutionaries.” So, what sets CLAC apart?

Their story

CLAC’s founders saw workers as partners with management, not as natural enemies given to suspicion and hatred. They saw workers as part of communities who bear responsibility to each other, their employer, and their work. A “closed shop” practice, which forces all workers of a company to join a union, seemed to wrongfully emphasize collective rights over the individual. To this day, the only place the Supreme Court of Canada denies freedom of association – granted in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms – is the workplace. In contrast, CLAC gives employees the option to join them or not.

Unlike the Canadian Labour Congress, which was a founding partner of the NDP in 1961, CLAC has no political affiliations. They also believe that the “materialistic view of work…shared by management and unions, is the very opposite of the Christian idea of stewardship, calling, participation, service, and responsibility.” They agreed with Pope Leo XIII in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum – “There is no intermediary more powerful than religion…in drawing the rich and the working class together, by reminding each of its duties to the other, and especially of the obligations of justice.”

By advocating a non-adversarial approach, CLAC has consistently been vilified as a “company union,” since their goal is to unite interests rather than attack a specific enemy. One in five CLAC locals are voluntary recognition agreements, where management amicably agrees to CLAC’s presence without workers having to force the agreement through a legal procedure, which often happens with traditional collective agreements.

For CLAC’s 43,000 members, they’re a legal advocate and provider of benefits otherwise not available. They provide training in conflict resolution, and always try to form agreements in order to foster teamwork rather than raise ultimatums. Most importantly, they’re a third party that is able to foster trust in a dispute.

Get the benefits

“We talk about work as calling,” says Manitoba regional director, Eric Stutzman. “In Christian circles we have this notion of advocacy for the poorest of the poor. Why wouldn’t we do that in our workplaces where some people don’t have the ability to organize themselves?”

“In situations where employees and employers have a struggle to understand each other, my role provides a level playing field,” says Geoff Dueck Thiessen, a CLAC Manitoba representative and MB church member.

A framework for due process is not imposed, he says, but is based on an agreement made by both parties. “The relationship is far beyond a document,” he says.

“A union also provides advocacy for people who are good at what they do, but aren’t professionals in advocacy,” says Dueck Thiessen.

CLAC ensures that all labour rules are enforced, especially in cases where they might be overlooked. “Say an employee has poor attendance, but they have a disability no one knows about. They could get fired without knowing their rights.”

Because they follow a collective agreement, workers are protected from arbitrary decisions by middle managers that seem unfair. It protects the company by providing consistent guidelines for managing employees around discipline.

“Unions also provide an economy of scale,” says Dueck Thiessen. “Now the company can give its workers health benefits because they’ve joined 20,000 people instead of, say, just 100.”

Another issue is poor communication. Harmful intent can be assumed where there is none. “Often employers are equally as frustrated as employees,” says Eric Stutzman. “Coming to a mutual agreement shows respect.”

That respect goes a long way in smoothing over anxieties about power struggles.

So is it Christian?

There are unions such as CUPE that use non-adversarial approaches as well. That’s why some can’t make heads or tails of CLAC’s Christian designation. But in 1963, the Ontario Labour Relations Board ruled that a Christian trade union is no more sectarian than a union founded on principles arising out of other world and life views.

CLAC finds itself in an uphill battle, often with heavily politicized opposition. Willingness to step into these waters may have to do with its origins in Reformed theology. Whereas Mennonites developed an alternative economic system called fair trade in 1946, CLAC founders were intent on “reforming” conventional social structures.

This theological distinction still causes confusion today. Take the example of Lode King Industries, central Canada’s largest manufacturer of highway flat decks and grain trailers, located in Winkler, Manitoba. In March 2006, their employees voted 77 percent in favour of affiliating with CLAC.

“I know for a fact that it was the word ‘Christian’ that got them the vote,” says Terry Elias, the CEO of Lode King’s parent company, Triple E. “The disappointing thing is that that first word immediately slants people’s view to accept it.” He questions whether they’re actually a Christian organization, in the conventional sense of the term, since they don’t openly proselytize or limit their numbers to Christian employees. Elias is a member of Winkler Bergthaler Mennonite Church, and explains how he’s advocated for a pension fund and many informal benefits for his workers with their non-union in-house collective agreement for the last 25 years.

“Basically any business wants to work according to biblical principles – if we do, we have a good social setting.” Though immigrant workers without a high-school education will now have a legal advocate for increased benefits, Elias wonders whether CLAC union dues are actually worth it.

Though skeptical, Elias sees some good that CLAC can do. As a former school board trustee, he found that teacher unions would tire them out, and educational assistants got short shrift. CLAC was recently appointed there to represent the assistants as third-party labour law experts. Elias also suggests that “where they [CLAC] probably perform” is when they address the needs of individual company plants neglected by larger unions.

More than words?

So do Christian principles actually make a difference in the workplace?

“There’s an inherent difference between a Christian and class-conflict mindset,” says John Redekop, long-time MB political scientist and president emeritus of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. He’s observed CLAC since the 70s. “I was involved in a union of university faculty, and as a labourer as well. Both Christians and unions claim to be fair, but their message is different. There’s a big contrast between cooperation and confrontation. The zero-sum game was drilled into me years ago – if we win a game, others lose. There was a time when it had some validity to it, when coalminers were abused and being squeezed for every ounce of profit. But it really doesn’t apply now, where unionized labour has incomes far above average across the country.

“I’ve observed that where CLAC is organized, there’s an absence of animosity and inflammatory rhetoric, and a commitment not to hurt the public and third parties,” says Redekop. “And CLAC members often do better than others because they very rarely go on strike and work together with management for the good of the entire workplace.”

A different story

The fastest growing union in Canada is not without its critics, however. From a labour union perspective (though not illegal), CLAC “raids” other workplaces by getting there first to strike deals with, instead of strike against, management. Their voluntary recognition agreements have also come under attack (although the mainstream labour movement engages in these types of agreements as well), with opponents accusing CLAC of using them to keep other unions out and preventing workers from having meaningful input into contract negotiations. For opponents, it seems, the word “democracy” is an indispensable accessory with which to club an opponent.

Darlene Dziewit, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour, has negotiated for unions for 17 years. She points to a 1996 report by the Manitoba Labour Relations Board, which found that CLAC sent out-of-province members from Alberta to a Manitoba Hydro local and tried to sign an agreement which none of the 200 other employees knew about. The collective agreement was found unlawful.

“When employers really like the union, you have to ask how well that union can represent the workers,” says Dziewit. She notes that CLAC has only had four strikes since 1952, but they’re known for suing people – “which never really goes anywhere.” She says CLAC’s claims of cooperation are also overrated, since unions settle 95 percent of collective agreements without any strike.

Pointing to something greater

The tension between union movements is a familiar part of labour history, however. For an organization that claims that, “the meaning of work is in the meaning of life itself,” there’s a lot to live up to. As Winkler’s Terry Elias says, “In a very buoyant economy it’s difficult to say who’s entitled to what.”

For Christians, CLAC is an option that at least emphasizes work as a vocation, employers and employees alike. Yes, Christians have been union leaders, and there are secular unions that practice non-adversarial approaches. CLAC too, is a business. But they’re also a legally recognized Canadian social institution that believes a holistic life is something more than rights, health, and democracy.

For Darlene Dziewit, “unions can supply people with a sense of belonging to something bigger.” This is true of the labour movement as a whole. But in the case of CLAC, unions and work open up a discussion about a non-materialistic vision of the human good.

“Work at its best is an expression of shalom,” says CLAC research and training director, Gideon Strauss. Shalom is more than peace and conflict resolution. Shalom suggests physical, spiritual, economic, and social wholeness and well-being. Strauss is able to articulate these concepts on week-long staff retreats where they discuss the theoretical basis of their organization.

Though the entire labour movement has been influenced by the Christian idea of vocation, even in Marxist thought, Strauss says CLAC is more than just secular humanism. Although you won’t find language like shalom on their website, Strauss says CLAC creates a message that makes sense to a broader public without being explicitly Christian, using words like collaboration and cooperation. Nevertheless, he says, “I cannot articulate at the deepest level what work is about without drawing on the resources of shalom in the Scriptures.”

—Andrew Siebert is assistant editor of the MB Herald.

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