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Rights and Responsibilities of Workers and Labour Unions

Upon reading both the signs of the times, and the 2009 encyclical, Charity in Truth, you might be tempted to conclude that Pope Benedict was offering a prophetic description of the 2011 labour scene in Canada.

He noted: “Through the combination of social and economic change, trade unions organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labour unions.”

Beginning with the Canadian Auto Workers’ brief strike against Air Canada in mid-June, the Conservative government has taken an aggressive stance against strikes which Labour Minister Lisa Raitt said threaten the economy. The CAW and Air Canada decided to arbitrate their pension dispute before back-to-work legislation could take effect.

Legislation imposed on Canada Post and its locked-out workers has saddled the workers with lower pay raises than the employer had initially proposed in bargaining. It is important to remember that the union was locked out; they were not on strike. One might well ask: Why didn’t the government use its power or influence to end the lockout? We could have put up with rotating strikes for a while and eventually Canada Post would have sorted the situation out with the union.

Meanwhile, the Public Service Alliance of Canada is predicting a bitter fight over government plans for job cuts.

Hard times do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers.

Pope Benedict, in the same paragraph cited above), added: “The repeated calls issued with the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, of the promotion of workers’ association that can defend their right must therefore be honoured today even more than in the past, as prompt and far-sighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level”.

Catholic social teaching supports the right of workers to choose whether to organize, join a union, and bargain collectively, and to exercise these rights without reprisal.

Workers, owners, employers and unions should work together to create decent jobs, build a more just economy and advance the common good.

Such teaching is more than a hundred years old. Pope John Paul II in 1991 stated: “Furthermore, society and the State must ensure wage levels adequate for the maintenance of the worker and his family, including a certain amount for savings. This requires a continuous effort to improve workers’ training and capacity so that their work will be more skilled and productive, as well as careful controls and adequate legislative measure to block shameful forms of exploitation, especially to the disadvantage of the most vulnerable workers, of immigrants and those on the margins of society. The role of trade unions in negotiating minimum salaries and working conditions is decisive in this area.”

There are several reasons why unions should be regarded as a social good .

First, because unions give people a voice. A healthy society is one in which the various groups of people are able to participate and to have input into social decisions and policy. The image most often used is that of the human body, in which the different organs have their own unique function, such as feet for walking, eyes for seeing, etc. Unions enable workers to have a collective voice in society, and to have input into the shape our society takes, just as do business interests, professional groups and cultural bodies. Unions thus have a "social" role and not just a "business" one.

Second, because unions enable people to act for themselves. Persons are subjects, not objects. They need to represent themselves, not simply be represented by their employer, however benign that employer might be. This is the same principle that good parents follow when they recognize that their children are now adults and so must make their own decisions.

Third, because unions combat the tendency, inherent to market economies, to treat workers as just another market commodity. Good unions not only struggle for decent wages, but also for a legal framework in the workplace, for grievance procedures that guard against arbitrary treatment, for a voice in the operation of the business (since workers are an essential part of the business), and for some measure of economic security.

Fourth, because unions make possible the process of collective bargaining, which is the most successful democratic institution in our society. More than 95% of all collective agreements are reached without resort to a strike or lockout. On any given day, in this country, dozens of collective agreements are being signed without any fuss. Moreover, time lost through strikes is less than 0.5% of all hours worked. This is a small price to pay for a social institution that protects freedom and gives people an effective voice in both their workplace and their society.

Labour unions are human organizations. They suffer from the failings found in all things human and, like any other human institution, they can sometimes disappoint us. They are also democratic institutions; their decisions reflect both the strengths and the weaknesses of positions based on majority vote. Union activity also tends of its very nature to be very public and visible. There is also the fact that unions sometimes represent a challenge to well-established interests. For all these reasons unions often receive a bad press.

Our basic challenge is to apply moral principles to the signs of the times - there is lots of room for improvement!

✠ F. B. Henry
Bishop of Calgary.