The owner of a furniture manufacturing plant near Fort Frances, Ontario is quoting scripture to justify locking out his employees and then shuttering his business after 69 per cent of his 25 workers voted to join a union. Leon Gingrich, who is described in a CBC story as a Mennonite, does not appear to be talking to reporters but the company has posted a notice in a local newspaper. It says in part: “as Christian business owners, our personal beliefs will not allow our conscience the freedom to work with a labour union, as we are required by scripture to ‘live peaceably with all men’ and not to use force to gain what we want or for what is required to succeed.”
Let’s look into this a bit farther but before we do let me say that I have belonged to unions in half a dozen workplaces – everything from construction and meat packing when I was a student to at least three unions during my career as a journalist. I also worked several years for the Canadian Labour Congress.
It could be that Mr. Gingrich was going to close down his business anyway and is using his employees’ desire to join a union as an excuse. But let’s take him at his word. He says that as a Christian his “personal beliefs” and “conscience” do not allow him to work with a union. I believe that he is stating a personal view that has no firm theological basis.
Catholics and unions
Mr. Gingrich may well not agree but in the spirit of ecumenism let’s look at what the Catholic Church teaches about unions. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII released a message (called an encyclical) about human work. There was a new and rapid industrialization at the time that attracted people to cities and factories where they often existed in desperate conditions. Actually, this still happens — just ask those garment workers who survived the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh in 2013.
Pope Leo defended private property in 1891 but also the right, even the necessity, of workers to protect themselves by forming unions. His teaching has been supported by other popes for more than 100 years. In 1981, Pope John Paul II had this to say about unions: “Their task is to defend the existential interests of workers in all sectors in which their rights are concerned. The experience of history teaches that organizations of this type are an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern societies.”
Mr. Gingrich adds that he is required by scripture to ‘live peaceably with all men’ and not to use force to gain what we want or for what is required to succeed.” He is making the unwarranted assumption that the presence of a union will lead to conflict. In fact, the ultimatums often arise from the owners and not their workers. For example, one could point to the violence done to 460 workers, their families and the entire community when in 2012 the American giant Caterpillar closed its locomotive plant in London, Ontario because workers rejected pay cuts of up to 50 per cent.
Workers join unions to negotiate decent wages and safe working conditions and the system performs well. My former employers at the CLC used to say that more than 99 per cent of union-management negotiations in Canada are successfully concluded without a strike or lockout occurring. Strikes are a last resort and it rarely comes to that. Pope John Paul, however, affirmed the right to strike as being “legitimate in the proper conditions and within just limits.”
In addition to negotiating improved conditions for themselves unions also advocate on behalf of public policies that benefit everyone in society. In the past unions pushed hard for Medicare and today they are advocating for an improved Canada Pension Plan.
Examination of conscience
Mr. Gingrich believes he has a right to close his business because workers exercised their democratic right to freedom of association. Unifor, the union to which they chose to belong, is taking this case to the Ontario Labour Relations Board.
If Mr. Gingrich is serious about shutting down his plant he will do violence to families of 25 people who work there. He is citing scripture as his motive but he might want to examine his own conscience.
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