Workers striking at the Canada Post facility on Commissioners Street on June 27.

The Church stands on the picket line

  • June 29, 2011

Unions, strikes and lockouts have dominated headlines and preoccupied the government as Canada eases into summer. So how many sermons are being preached about the right of workers to unionize? How often do Catholics recall the teaching of successive popes that workers have a right to a just wage that will provide for their families and old age?

Windsor and District Labour Council chaplain Fr. Bill Capitano — Fr. Cap down at the union hall — is convinced those sermons need to be preached.

“You might lose some people, but I think you would gain more,” Capitano told The Catholic Register. “The Church is talking about decent, living wages and the right to unionize. Maybe I’m dreaming, but I think that would be good for the Church.”

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 workers with lower pay raises than the employer had initially proposed in bargaining. Meanwhile, the Public Service Alliance of Canada is predicting a bitter fight over government plans for job cuts.

It’s not always easy to stand up for unionized workers, said North Bay Deacon Terry O’Connor. O’Connor was Ontario secretary treasurer of the Canadian Union of Public Employees until his retirement 15 years ago.

During a strike at North Bay’s Community Counselling Centre, O’Connor reviewed Church teaching from Rerum Novarum to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 1986 message for the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, “Supporting Labour Unions — A Christian Responsibility.” He decided his place was on the picket line with the workers, wearing his roman collar.

“My pastor called me in to tell me to stop,” O’Connor recalls. “I told him, ‘No, I wasn’t going to stop. The Church supports unions in the good times and the bad.’ ”

The priest decided to pass this problem upstairs to Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., Bishop Jean-Louis Plouffe. After a brief conversation, Plouffe told O’Connor that he too would wear his roman collar if he were standing on that picket line. O’Connor continued to march with the picketers.

“I got transferred about a month later to a different parish,” said O’Connor.

While Church support of the right to unionize is indisputable, there’s still a prudential decision to be made about whether any particular strike or campaign by a union makes a positive contribution to the common good, said Catholic freelance writer Joe Campbell.

“Public sector unions, these people are better paid and certainly have better benefits than are found in the private sector. I think some of it is unwarranted,” said the columnist for Gilbert Magazine and author of Take Me Out of the Ball Game. “We do have huge unfunded liabilities in pensions.”

The labour movement in Canada has historically counted on the Church as one of its allies, said Duncan MacDonald, programs co-ordinator for the Ontario Federation of Labour. In the 1980s MacDonald recalls handing out statements from the CCCB as part of union campaigns.

While he knows Church teaching at the highest level has supported unions, he also recalls growing up in the union town of Cornwall, Ont., and never hearing a word of it from local pastors.

“They never talked about workers,” he said. “People might hope the Church would be there, but often it wasn’t.”

The man William Lyon Mackenzie King called “the father of the labour movement in Canada” was a committed Irish Catholic who once gave a union hall speech consisting entirely of quotes from Rerum Novarum. Daniel John O’Donoghue died in 1907, having been the first labour candidate elected to the Ontario legislature in 1874 and working for years in the provincial public service to shape a framework of labour regulation in Canada’s industrial heartland.

“He believed that in the teachings of Christ would be found the ultimate solution of the labour question,” said King upon O’Donoghue’s death.

Right up to Pope Benedict’s most recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, the Church’s official teaching remains in favour of organized labour, said Windsor, Ont.’s Fr. Michael Ryan. The Catholic vision of a healthy, organic and democratic society includes all kinds of intermediary associations and institutions to balance the power of the state and the power of capital, he said.

“That way it’s not just the state on one side and individuals on the other side,” he said. “Unions enable working people to speak and act for themselves.”

There’s much more to the Catholic teaching about work and labour than unionization.

“You have to understand social teaching as a whole body of work,” said migrant workers ministry specialist Marie Carter of the diocese of London.

“We are about the dignity of the worker.”

The Working Centre in Kitchener, Ont., was founded in 1982 to address the situation of the unemployed. Joe and Stephanie Mancini started it based on their reading of Catholic social teaching as undergraduates at St. Jerome’s University. The Mancinis now find themselves fighting for the dignity of work and workers in an economy restructured to resist organized labour.

“The ability to organize at the bottom has been taken away,” said Joe Mancini.

Capitano doesn’t think unions are dead or an anachronism held over from our industrial past.

“Unions are more important today than they ever were,” he said. “I don’t think people realize how unions are being attacked today.”

With the constant threat of moving jobs off-shore, and governments willing to legislate strikers back to their jobs, the whole idea of bargaining between equals is out the window, he said.

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