Canada’s clergy organize under Unifaith

Community chapters breeding grounds for future bargaining units: Unifor
By Sabrina Nanji
|Canadian Labour Reporter|Last Updated: 02/03/2014

No collective agreement? No union dues? No problem.

Enter Unifaith, Unifor’s latest community chapter and unofficial union. Unifaith launched in mid-January and is comprised of clergy and faith workers belonging to the United Church of Canada, which currently employs about 2,500 workers.

Robin Wardlaw, president of Unifaith and a Toronto-based reverend, said United Church members have considered organizing for years now, but saw the community chapter as a means to validate that process and inch closer toward eventual certification.

"The union can come to my aid if I’m in difficulty at my church and feeling that there is no one there for me. I can call on the union and someone can be with me through the difficult, sometimes lengthy, sometimes expensive process," Wardlaw said, adding he hopes the new chapter will break down isolation between clergy members.

As part of its organization efforts, Unifaith intends to put an end to what it says is a culture of harassment and bullying throughout the church, improve communication between current and incoming members, deal with job security concerns and eventually beef up the vocation itself through a universal certification process akin to those for doctors and engineers.

Though a community chapter still falls under Unifor’s constitution, it is a separate entity. For instance, its members do not pay traditional union dues, but rather a stagnated amount ($5 per month for wage earners, $10 per month for salary earners). Though Unifor collects, it does not allocate the money — where the funds go is decided by the chapter itself. Nor do members in a community chapter all fall under one blanket employer — it can be made up of workers in a specific employment condition, such as cashiers or farmers.

While the community chapter concept is hardly a novel one, it leaves plenty of room for interpretation and flexibility. The United Steelworkers union, for instance, introduced an associate member program back in the early 2000s in an attempt to foster community action.

Back in Canada, Unifor’s only other national community chapter is the Canadian Freelance Union, a former Communications, Energy and Paperworkers local which became a community chapter after Unifor was created.

Roxanne Dubois, Unifor’s community chapter co-ordinator, said this is one method by which non-traditional and precarious workers can organize and perhaps eventually inject much-needed workers into its shrinking membership base.

"It is a very flexible model," she said. "It is meant to assist and involve people who want to join the union to be able to do it, and to work on their collective goals — whether that is to improve safety in their workplace, whether that is to get respect from their employer, or whether that is to even just be recognized as a collective voice within their sector or within their workplace."

Traditional tactics thrown out

Typically, religious institutions do not fall under the labour movement’s umbrella. That there are even whispers of certification has Unifaith navigating uncharted territory.

Already it is apparent traditional tactics won’t work. Take a strike, for instance. Though it may be the bread and butter for a union, we won’t soon be seeing ministers marching the picket line outside churches, Wardlaw said.

Making the situation even more unique is that clergy are already held accountable to a regional association, the presbytery, where they have equal representation with church members — including for matters relating to disciplinary proceedings, standards of practice and policies. Though the United Church has had a long history of support for organized labour, its vice-president of human resources Alan Hall said the immediate benefits of a union — in addition to the presbytery — are up in the air.

"It is not clear to me how a union, outside of this decision-making and assessment structure, would afford ministers more involvement in our contribution to such decisions, reviews and standards," Hall explained, adding the United Church has made strides this past decade to address Unifaith’s concerns. That includes introducing trained investigators, compensation practice reviews and a mandated national payroll service.

Preach to the choir

But community chapters, and Unifaith in particular, run the risk of alienating Unifor’s current bargaining unit, according to Howard Levitt, a senior partner at Levitt LLP, a labour and employment law firm headquartered in Toronto.

"It dissipates energy and money that could be used to directly organize memberships in factories that will get them union dues, that will create a broader alliance, that will create bigger bargaining units," Levitt said. "Spending money on this kind of alliance will upset your members more than excite your members."

Not only might aligning with a specific denomination such as the United Church polarize Unifor members who might not believe what the church teaches, but resources would be better spent on current members. Levitt called the move an act of desperation with potentially damaging consequences.

"Social activism is one of the problems people have with unions, generally because people are saying, ‘Why are my monies going to help causes unrelated to getting me more money in my collective agreement?’" he added.

However, Dubois claimed the opposite, saying that organizing efforts need to start at the grassroots level.

"For many groups, it may be the first step towards a full certification of a bargaining unit," she said.