Special Series: Fast Forward
Community Union Chapters
By Victoria Fenner
When the early organizers of a union for United Church ministers approached the Canadian Autoworkers in 2004, they had no idea that they were creating a whole new way for workers to organize. Over ten years later, a group of ministers from across Canada, mostly in Ontario, have formed the Unifaith Community Chapter.
A community chapter is the new way to organize workers. With the rise of precarious and temporary workers in today’s economy, unions are increasingly looking for new models to help more workers organize. “Community chapters provide a way to organize groups of precarious workers, freelancers and workers in non-traditional work places. If you fall between the cracks and are unable to organize, you can still join a community chapter and still benefit from being part of a union,” explains Roxanne Dubois of Unifor.
In some ways, the relationship between clergy and the church resembles a traditional employment scenario (ministers are employees of the church). In others, the situation is more complicated, because each minister works in her/his own church and is accountable to both the local church board, the presbytery (a church district with many churches) and the national United Church. It’s unclear who a minister’s “boss” is — the local church or the larger body.
The nature of church work also makes working conditions difficult. Social isolation is a problem, especially in rural areas where ministers are often stationed many kilometers away from their colleagues. And interpersonal relationships can be especially fraught, with few clear ways to settle disputes. Tradition, emotion and spirituality enrich people’s lives in the church, but the results can be devastating when an environment is dysfunctional.
Jim Evans and Karen Paton Evans — two of the four co-founders of Clergy United, which became Unifaith — saw the need for an organization which represented clergy after an extended incident of harassment by a member of Jim’s previous congregation. Jim says the board of the church were sympathetic but were ill-equipped to handle the situation. “Plus, in any church situation, the membership of the congregation quite often are neighbors, relations .. there are any number of reasons why this gets very complicated,” Jim says. The upper levels of the church were also unable to intervene to resolve the situation and they had to turn to police and the courts for resolution.
The issue was finally resolved, but not without pain, suffering and a move to another church. Despite the difficulties, Karen says that there was an unexpected blessing when they were inundated with phone calls from ministers and their families who had also found themselves in similar situations. “We realized that we had to do something,” she says. “It’s not enough to say ‘I’ll pray for you’. That helps, but it’s not enough.”
They started researching quietly, looking around the world for solutions, and discovered that Unite The Union in Britain had established a faith workers branch in 1994. They took this knowledge to the Canadian Autoworkers Union to ask if they would be interested in a similar arrangement in Canada. Now, over ten year later, under Unifor, the Unifaith Community Chapter is established. (Unifor was formed in 2013 when the Canadian Autoworkers Union and the Communications Energy and Paperworkers Union merged to become Canada’s largest private sector union.)
“We could have started on our own,”says current Unifaith president Robin Wardlaw. “But the advantages of going to an existing union are very big. They’ve been through almost every labor difficulty you can imagine. They have resources for organizing.” Those resources can include access to union halls to hold their meetings, advice from organizers and being able to connect with other people in the labor movement who share a commitment to social justice.
The benefits of union membership extend beyond dispute mechanisms. Solidarity and networking is a big part of Unifaith. With ministers spread out across the country, sometimes hours away from the minister in the next town, it can be a lonely life. The community chapter provides a way for individual members to connect and share common causes.
Unifaith members are actively organizing towards a collective agreement for United Church ministers, so the Unifaith Community Chapter is also an organizing drive. Karen Paton Evans says the community chapter model works well as an interim solution because ministers can “try on” union membership before making a firm commitment by signing a union card.
Unifor currently has two community chapters, Unifaith and the Canadian Freelance Union, which represents freelance communications workers such as journalists, videographers and graphic designers. Still in the experimental stage, Unifor is exploring new ways to adapt the community chapter model to other types of non-traditional and precarious employment situations and sectors.
Fast Forward: Stories of Challenge & Change is produced with the generous support of the Government of Canada and the Social Justice Fund of Unifor. Thanks to Roger Dumas for his wonderful human brain ‘sonifications’, one of which appears in Fast Forward intros/extros. For more information about Roger’s Pieces of Mind CD, go here.