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Labouring in God's vineyard (collective agreement and the church).

Is there anything in our theology, ecclesiology or polity which precludes a congregation of The Presbyterian Church in Canada from entering into a collective agreement with unionized employees as laid out in the Labour Relations Act of Ontario? If a collective agreement is negotiated between the bargaining unit of the church, what is the process of ratification to be followed on the side of the church? In our system, which body has the authority to sign such an agreement?

I would need to read the Labour Relations Act of Ontario in order to determine whether or not there is any potential conflict between it and the theology, ecclesiology or polity of The Presbyterian Church in Canada. On that score, I will remain silent. But I will comment on the basic principles.

If our denomination had a theological position that believed union membership is sinful (as some denominations do), the matter would be straightforward. No congregation would be able to enter into a collective agreement with unionized employees. But I believe The Presbyterian Church in Canada has, historically, supported labour to organize in unions. Was there not a strong Christian influence at the origins of the labour movement? General Assemblies have pronounced upon it. It has been seen as a social justice issue. Some of our clergy have been outspoken in this regard and some have even walked the picket line!

So why should a group of employees working for a church not have the right to organize themselves in order to protect their interests? Historically, churches have been vocal in supporting the rights of working people. But I recall attending church-related institutions that, I felt, did not pay their support staff adequately. Do we really try to pay people fairly? Or are we as those who say, "But this is a charitable organization; therefore, your job is like a calling and, therefore, we will not (cannot) pay you the going rate"? That's why we usually pay church secretaries less than they could earn on the open market.

There is the question of compatibility; that is, should support staff members (custodial or secretarial) all be Christians? Once a union enters the fray and, maybe, even without union involvement, the question could be posed whether it is right and proper for a congregation to insist that its non-leadership staff be Christians and practising a life-style compatible with the gospel and the ethos of the congregation.

For a congregation of our denomination to enter into a collective agreement with unionized employees may mean paying higher wages and offering better benefits as well as improving working conditions. But, if fair, these conditions should have been met in any case.

All in all, I see no specific legal or theological conflict in this area. It is not the kind of thing I like to see happening because it may disturb a more collegial way of working. The "us" versus "them" mentality may well be accentuated.

Because such a collective agreement has to do with wages, benefits and working conditions, it should be agreed upon by the congregation as part of its determination of the annual budget. Then, it should be signed by the convener of the board of managers and, perhaps, by the trustees as directed by the congregation. The congregation has to pay the bills.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Presbyterian Record
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Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Plomp, Tony
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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