United Church of Canada Ministers Launch 'Union' Drive

Ministers in the United Church of Canada (UCC) began forming their own union to help clergy deal with the high level of “clergy-abuse” in the congregations, on Nov. 5, 2004. Backed by the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union, the ministers of the UCC have been pushing harder to gain more grounding on the contentious issue of unionizing ministers.

The union effort began full force last week, following several days of discussions between the CAW and UCC clergy concerned about the mistreatment by parishioners and officials at the church’s national headquarters. In a Nov. 5 announcement, the two groups publicly initiated the effort by encouraging interested clergy to phone in on the movement.

"We're going full steam ahead. The response has been overwhelming as far as phone calls and inquiries go,” said Mike Shields, the CAW's national director of organizing.

According to the Rev. David Galston, one of the UCC clergy involved in the effort, the idea of unionizing came long before the early November meeting with the CAW.

“It began when we were trying to solve the problem of ministers being abused in congregations and church courts not defending ministers but forcing them to leave their pulpits,” explained Galston, a UCC minister at Eternal Spring United Church in Hamilton, Canada.

According to Galston, there have been multiple cases where the church court sided with the congregation in the instances of clergy abuse and maltreatment without further investigation.

“If there is a problem in the congregation, the minister gets isolated and often gets asked to leave, rather than the congregation being asked to fix itself,” said Galston. Particular problems can be important, such as when people reach a level of abuse like stalking a minister, invasion of privacy, withholding paychecks and false accusations against ministers.”

Galston explained that in several cases where ministers were falsely accused of taking money from collections, the UCC court immediately repudiated the minister and forced him to leave the church, rather than solving the problems within the congregation.

“Instead of the church saying “you cannot make those accusations if that is not true,” they tell the minister to leave,” said Galston on a Nov. 12 interview. “They don’t’ investigate the claim.”

The main problem, Galston said, is the way in which the UCC system is run: often times, the accuser is on the board that determines the verdict of a particular case. Also, there is no independent body within the church to protect ministers from such false allegations.

“The problem is what constitutes abuse…when it is genuine and illegal activity is taken against a minister, the church needs an independent body to ensure that it acts justly for the minister,” added Galston.

Meanwhile, high-ranking officials of the UCC rejected the ministers’ call for a union by explaining the difference between a secular and Christ-based organization.

"Trade unions can and do work for good in society, but they are not a good fit for United Church clergy," Rev. Jim Sinclair, general secretary of the General Council of the United Church of Canada, said Friday in a statement.
Sinclair added that labor laws are not “designed or intended to regulate the relationship between a minister and the church.”

"Unionization of the clergy would fundamentally change the theological understanding of the covenant role of a minister within the United Church of Canada and the character of the relationship with her or his congregation," he said.

"It is also difficult to imagine how ministers could be members of a bargaining unit and at the same time continue to exercise their presbytery responsibilities of governance and management within the United Church of Canada,” he added.
All the while, Sinclair acknowledged the fact that there are “challenges ministers and congregations face in maintaining a healthy relationship.”

"A continuing goal of the United Church and its ministers is to foster healthy congregations," commented Sinclair. "The church believes that when one hurts, we all hurt, and is always saddened to hear of situations where wholeness and health have not been achieved.”

A recent study by the UCC indicated that 60 percent of ministers experienced “high-levels of conflict with their congregations” and that eighty percent of clergy said they had no peer support.

However, Sinclair added that hope for renewal does not lie in the “adversarial approach of the union/management labor relations model.”

Galston, meanwhile, said he disagreed with Sinclair.

“The union would help the situation because it offers the minister resources that the ministers don’t have on their own by themselves,” explained Galston.

“The union is complementary, not divisive, and the United Church is a pro-union church,” added Galston. “I think that the people who are trying to form the union, that the National church would be open to the resources a union can bring in the question of church reform.”

When asked if he believes church reform can come through continued discourse between the ministers and the top officials, Galston answered, “no.”

“I don’t think so because the church lacks an independent body. The problems arise because there is no independent body. The people who hear the case (in church court) are the ones who pay the salaries and the ones who make the accusations… there are entangled in cross-purposes.”

The UCC is Canada’s largest Protestant denomination with some 4,000 pastors in 3,600 congregations; according to a 2001 census, more than three-million Canadians identified themselves as members of the church.

The following is the list of "top ten reasons to join the CAW union," as released by the United Church Ministers' Organizing Committee:

10 – You can have some control over your workplace, guaranteed in the contract you negotiate with your employer.

9 – Education offered by the CAW is the best available to union members in Canada. The CAW Education Program gives union members the tools they need to build a better union, and to develop skills to deal with management.

8 – CAW professional staff work with local unions to negotiate contracts and assist members in dealings with employers.

7 – A $50-million Defence fund ensures that members of CAW have resources to use if they need them to defend their rights. Over 97 percent of CAW contracts are settled without strike or lockout. In representing CAW member nurses, who do not have the right to strike, CAW successfully negotiates contract agreements without disruption of health services.

6 – Collective agreements that have always led the way by setting wage-and-benefit patterns for thousands of workers across Canada.

5 – The experience and reliability of Canada’s largest private sector. The CAW represents 250,000 working people like you in nearly every industry and job imaginable.

4 - Health and Safety protection, as well as research and representation in such areas as workers’ compensation and occupational health and safety legislation.

3 – Fairness and dignity in the workplace, made enforceable by a negotiated legal contract. Respect is no longer dependent on the whim of a boss. With a CAW Union contract, there are no barriers created by favouritism or arbitrary actions of employers.

2 – Democracy within the CAW is carefully protected. Union members vote for their leadership, at all levels, vote for contract proposals, vote to ratify agreements. Every member can run for office and fully participate in the local and national union.

1 – The number one reason for joining CAW is what it can mean to you and your family. In Canada, unions are responsible for many of the things we now take for granted – paid vacations, benefits, pensions and more. CAW is a union that builds on the past, protecting what we have won and helping to create a better future.

For more information, contact: Rev. David Galston, organizing team member – 905-577-5726 (david@eternalspring.ca)