Union strife stretches patience thin

Unions and labour relations have been on my mind in recent months. From NHL players to Ontario teachers, it seems that many people aren't happy with what their employers are offering, resulting in lockouts, strikes and slowdowns. Labour disputes can be very nasty and emotional, and these have been no exception. What is the Christian perspective here?

Some Christians are very skeptical of strikes and organized labour. I know one man who gave up his entire line of work because it was becoming unionized. As a Christian he had a strong work ethic and sense of personal integrity; he felt unions promoted laziness and the shirking of responsibility, and he wanted no part of it.

Many Christians are uncomfortable with one of the most basic functions of unions—demanding more for their members, if necessary through confrontation and strikes—because it seems selfish and provocative. Whether you are an employee or employer, it can feel wrong to always appear to be wanting more money for doing the same job.

But others see the labour movement as very compatible with Christianity—particularly unions' commitments to equal treatment for all and a just distribution of resources. For these Christians, unions are a bulwark against greed and exploitation. Indeed, when we look at many workplaces in the developing world—like the terribly unsafe Bangladesh factory that burned down in November, killing 112 people—unions seem like the best solution to ensure human dignity and fair treatment.

Of course, many Christians may have a combination both perspectives; that unions were needed in the past, but not today, especially for million-dollar NHL players.

It's often hard to find Christian virtues and the fruit of the Spirit in labour relations—instead we often see bitterness and loathing. There's rarely a middle ground, and both unions and employers can often seem equally greedy and irresponsible.

In Ontario, the teachers' dispute dragged on and upset teachers, parents and taxpayers alike. It's also symptomatic of a greater social divide that cuts right through the church pews—between reasonably well-paid public sector jobs (largely unionized) and the private sector (largely not unionized). Since you'll find lots of Christians in both groups, I'm sure some friendships and relationships have been strained in the last few months.

I should mention that the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) and some employers have tried to find a middle ground, trying to maintain principles of respect and constructive dialogue and not descending into the bitter trench warfare of secular unions. But these remain small organizations, and not necessarily a model that can always be followed.

In the end, the one clear thing is our overarching need for patience in labour disputes. Strikes are over big, fundamental issues, and unions can't be wished away. But as Christians, we can strive to better understand and respect both sides and their quest for just solutions.

Dear Readers:

ChristianWeek relies on your generous support. please take a minute and donate to help give voice to stories that inform, encourage and inspire.

Donations of $20 or more will receive a charitable receipt.
Thank you, from Christianweek.

About the author

ChristianWeek Columnist

Jonathan Malloy is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario.