The owner of a furniture manufacturing plant near Fort Frances, Ontario is quoting scripture to justify locking out his employees and then shuttering his business after 69 per cent of his 25 workers voted to join a union. Leon Gingrich, who is described in a CBC story as a Mennonite, does not appear to be talking to reporters but the company has posted a notice in a local newspaper. It says in part: “as Christian business owners, our personal beliefs will not allow our conscience the freedom to work with a labour union, as we are required by scripture to ‘live peaceably with all men’ and not to use force to gain what we want or for what is required to succeed.”
Let’s look into this a bit farther but before we do let me say that I have belonged to unions in half a dozen workplaces – everything from construction and meat packing when I was a student to at least three unions during my career as a journalist. I also worked several years for the Canadian Labour Congress.
It could be that Mr. Gingrich was going to close down his business anyway and is using his employees’ desire to join a union as an excuse. But let’s take him at his word. He says that as a Christian his “personal beliefs” and “conscience” do not allow him to work with a union. I believe that he is stating a personal view that has no firm theological basis.
Catholics and unions
Mr. Gingrich may well not agree but in the spirit of ecumenism let’s look at what the Catholic Church teaches about unions. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII released a message (called an encyclical) about human work. There was a new and rapid industrialization at the time that attracted people to cities and factories where they often existed in desperate conditions. Actually, this still happens — just ask those garment workers who survived the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh in 2013.
Pope Leo defended private property in 1891 but also the right, even the necessity, of workers to protect themselves by forming unions. His teaching has been supported by other popes for more than 100 years. In 1981, Pope John Paul II had this to say about unions: “Their task is to defend the existential interests of workers in all sectors in which their rights are concerned. The experience of history teaches that organizations of this type are an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern societies.”
Mr. Gingrich adds that he is required by scripture to ‘live peaceably with all men’ and not to use force to gain what we want or for what is required to succeed.” He is making the unwarranted assumption that the presence of a union will lead to conflict. In fact, the ultimatums often arise from the owners and not their workers. For example, one could point to the violence done to 460 workers, their families and the entire community when in 2012 the American giant Caterpillar closed its locomotive plant in London, Ontario because workers rejected pay cuts of up to 50 per cent.
Workers join unions to negotiate decent wages and safe working conditions and the system performs well. My former employers at the CLC used to say that more than 99 per cent of union-management negotiations in Canada are successfully concluded without a strike or lockout occurring. Strikes are a last resort and it rarely comes to that. Pope John Paul, however, affirmed the right to strike as being “legitimate in the proper conditions and within just limits.”
In addition to negotiating improved conditions for themselves unions also advocate on behalf of public policies that benefit everyone in society. In the past unions pushed hard for Medicare and today they are advocating for an improved Canada Pension Plan.
Examination of conscience
Mr. Gingrich believes he has a right to close his business because workers exercised their democratic right to freedom of association. Unifor, the union to which they chose to belong, is taking this case to the Ontario Labour Relations Board.
If Mr. Gingrich is serious about shutting down his plant he will do violence to families of 25 people who work there. He is citing scripture as his motive but he might want to examine his own conscience.
I always appreciate your comments and you can leave them by scrolling farther down on this page.
It’s interesting that Christians sometimes use scripture as a weapon — a very unChristian practice!
This does seem bizare however using Catholic theology to normalize what Mennonites should do could be misleading. Perhaps Mr Gingrich actually believes what he is spouting, perhaps he is just angry or perhaps there is more that has happened behind the scenes leading up to this we don’t know about. Mennonites are pretty serious about their faith judging by all the shuttered roadside stands at Mennonite farms on Sunday in St Jacob’s area of Ontario.
In my first job after high school (in 1947), I worked in a paving gang. The straw boss grabbed the shovel from you as a sign you were fired. The old guys told us that during the depression, when men were lined up three deep on the sidewalk waiting for a job, the boss would throw the shovel into the crowd and the guy that came up with the shovel got the job. After that, I made sure I worked in a unionized job.
Mr. Gingrich says he is required by his conscience “not to use force to gain what [he] want[s]” or is this paraphrase incorrect and does his conscience only require others (e.g. the workers) not to use “force”?
This thinking strikes me as profoundly failing the “know what is yours and what is not yours” test. Does his wife use “force” when she says to him, “Today I’m making shoo-fly pie for dessert”? Surely not. She is just making a choice within her own ambit of action. His own choice is whether to eat it or not, but her choice is not using “force” against him.
Mr. Gingrich suggests that the employees are using force, but they are merely exercising their freedom. A person who makes a choice does use his or her power to make that choice. But that is the proper use of power — to choose for oneself what to do and then to act. He can use his same power over his own actions to close his plant (and live with whatever consequences ensue), but this is HIS decision and nothing in the actions of the employees makes that decision inevitable or necessary.
Own your own decision and don’t attribute your choice to the workers, Mr. Gingrich. You prefer not to deal with organized workers. That is your choice to make (and we may see whether it is one the law allows you without penalty or whether it is one for which the law imposes sanctions).
I too have been curious about this story. Mennonites have a fairly long tradition of avoiding unions, and while Mr. Gingrich may not be too articulate about the reasons, it is a deeply-held conviction. One of the first Mennonite labour leaders was Kermit Eby, active during the early years of the automobile industry. He suffered serious censure from his faith community as a result. I don’t hold this conviction, but it is one that deserves respect. There may more to this story than journalists have reported or understood, for surely there are other options, one of which would be to treat and pay your employees so well that a union would be unnecessary. Failing that, it’s relatively hard times for everyone.
The irony of these two facts seem to be lost on Mr. Gingrich — He locked out his employees and then says “as Christian business owners, …we are required …not to use force to gain what we want…” Self-awareness is a virtue Mr. Gingrich.