What Does Religion Have to do With Labour Legislation?
What Does Religion Have to do With Labour Legislation?

What Does Religion Have to do With Labour Legislation?

September 1 st 1995
"It's a misnomer to call this a labor bill. This is really an employers' bill and it has but one purpose and that is to cremate the rights of working people in the province of Ontario."
—Gord Wilson, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour (Toronto Star, October 5, 1995)

"If there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people. Their self-interest as a class, group or nation would inevitably set them in opposition to one another."
—Pope John Paul II (The Splendor of Truth, p. 148)

The fight between the mainline labour unions in Ontario and the new provincial government of Premier Mike Harris was all too predictable. Union leaders vowed to oppose all rollbacks of the gains they obtained from the previous New Democratic Party government. The Conservatives, on the other hand, made such a rollback an important component of their "Common Sense Revolution" election platform.

No surprises there, but the question is whether such predictable teeter totter action and reaction is getting us anywhere. The short answer is no. But before we leave it at that with a shrug of resignation, boredom, or indifference, the question deserves another look.

Power shift

Organized labour in Ontario, and in the rest of Canada, has historically viewed the New Democratic Party as its ideological ally. When that party won the 1990 Ontario election, it determined to help its trade union allies by introducing a number of union-friendly changes to the Labour Relations Act. The most controversial changes (via Bill 40) were:

  • a ban on all replacement workers during a legal strike;
  • the right to picket in shopping malls;
  • first contract arbitration in case of bad faith bargaining;
  • the right to organize certain categories of farm workers;
  • restricting the right of employers to oppose certification applications; and
  • strengthening the successor rights of unions in case of ownership transfer.

The omnibus Bill 40 included many other details, generally welcomed by unions and seen as a means to create a more level labour relations playing field. But employers were upset and denounced the changes as a move unfairly shifting power toward unions while curtailing employers' rights to manage their businesses. Some warned that Bill 40's pro-union slant would be a barrier to new investments in Ontario and thus a destroyer of jobs.

The Harris government introduced Bill 7 to replace Bill 40, much to the delight of most employers. A few big employers, including Chrysler, have sided with the Canadian Auto Workers' union opposing Bill 7. The unions are angered not only at losing the advantages gained under Bill 40, but also at changes brought on by the new legislation, which will, among other things, make secret ballots mandatory in all ratification and strike votes and all applications for certifications.

Labour Minister Elizabeth Witmer stated that these changes will introduce "workplace democracy measures," and form a "package of labour reform designed to revitalize Ontario's economy, to create jobs, and to restore a much-needed balance to labour-management relationships in our province."

Left versus right

Union spokespersons and their allies have vowed to oppose the government Bill. Buzz Hargrove, president of the Canadian Auto Workers' union warned: "We are not going to accept this major setback for working people without a fight." He has hinted that workplace action might lead to lower productivity and financial losses to the employers. Others, such as Liberal labour critic Dwight Duncan, have warned about the outbreak of violence. During debate on first reading of Bill 7 in the Legislature, Duncan stated that "the government's policies in labour relations and in other areas are a recipe for recession, they are a recipe for violence" (Toronto Star, October 5, 1995).

No one comes right out and advocates violence, but such remarks almost invite it. The message is that if people turn to violence, it's really the government's fault. This is not only questionable but also dangerous reasoning, because it gives people justification for breaking the law whenever they are personally opposed to it. And if it were true, it would result in complete chaos in society.

If you follow the reasoning of the political left, then opposing Bill 7 is simply a moral choice for justice and for the less powerful over against the rich and greedy, especially big business. Many of them view it as a conflict between two different classes, and some have referred to the current controversy in Ontario as a "class war." In this "us versus them" just war context, protest, even violent protest, is deemed acceptable and sometimes necessary.

On the other side, the new Conservative government, or the political right, argues that the issue is not one of class but of efficiency, of the most effective way of organizing the economy and the other resources of the province. The preamble of both bills reflects this difference. Bill 40 puts the emphasis on promoting collective bargaining. The Bill 7 preamble stresses flexibility, productivity, and creating "an economic environment that benefits both workers and employers."

But is the real choice between those who are in favour of justice for the workers as a distinctive class and those who believe in economic efficiency, especially in the operation of the free market? The problem with the left-right dilemma is that it can never really be resolved, because there is truth on both sides, and many falsehoods. In practice, this ping-pong game will continue without any end in sight. Meanwhile, each side digs in its heels and takes advantage of the opposition whenever possible. And all too often, each side does its best to demonize the other, making genuine public debate virtually impossible.

Political reliance

The real problem, however, is that neither side—right or left, labour or management—is really interested in genuine debate. Both consider politics as the primary source of solutions. Thus, many union leaders and left-leaning people were elated with the NDP's surprise election victory in 1990. Should labour have cooperated with management? No, because Premier Bob was going to clobber the "corporate agenda." Similarly, many business leaders and right-leaning people are overjoyed at the Conservative victory in 1995. Does business need to listen to labour? No, because Iron Mike's going to club them back to their senses.

This gets us to the heart of the problem. Both labour and business either expect too much or, by neglect, leave too much to the state, rather than assuming their own responsibilities. But they are not alone in their reliance on politics to get them what they want. This malaise has infected all of society. It is based on the secular assumption that there is no reality beyond this world. Life is simply what we make of it, as are our standards of right or wrong, of what is just, fair, or equitable.

In such a society, the idea of the common good vanishes. The only game in town is power, and politics is the means to that power. But as our store of social and moral "capital" is rapidly being depleted, this game is becoming increasingly marred by conflict and violence. We become trapped on a treadmill to nowhere.

For labour and management—as for all of us—there is a choice. If we persist in playing the same game of political power, the destructive cycle of social, economic, and political breakdown will spiral ever downward. The other option is to bury the hatchet, admit that we need one another, and work for change that will benefit everyone, regardless of which party is in power, or the precise legislative environment. But for this to happen, a few things are required.

We must end the blaming, name calling, and finger pointing and admit that all of us must shoulder the burden for constructive change. We need to listen carefully to each other and reexamine our own assumptions more critically. For management, this means treating workers with dignity and respect as partners in the enterprise. Forget Milton Friedman's advice to ignore social responsibility and heed only corporate profits. For unions, this means respecting the legitimate and integral role of business. Forget the Marxist-inspired class-conflict notion that employers are the enemy.

Trust is vital

Francis Fukuyama pointed out that the "economics of trust" is the one indispensable ingredient of a healthy business and society. He compared workplaces where people cooperate in overcoming difficulties with those that fail to do so. Invariably, mutual trust was the decisive factor. When it was present, companies successfully weathered problems and setbacks. In such situations, management was honest and shared in the sacrifices required. But when trust was not present, difficulties could not be overcome. Fukuyama's conclusion is worth pondering:

Law, contract, and economic rationality provide a necessary but not sufficient basis for the stability and prosperity of post-industrial societies; they must be leavened with reciprocity, moral obligation, duty toward community, and trust, which are based in habit rather than rational calculation. The latter are not anachronisms in a modern society but the sine qua non of the latter's success. (National Review, August 14, 1995, p. 43)

Fukuyama's reference to moral obligations, duty toward community, and trust comes very close to what in the Christian religion is called a change of heart from self-service to the service of God and our fellow man.

This religious talk is now suspect in the eyes of many, but without a recovery of that most basic realization of human existence, we will not get anywhere. To the question, What has religion got to do with labour legislation anyway?, the answer must be: Everything in our experience points to the futility of trying to direct people's behaviour by purely external means, such as the law, without any regard to that which rules the human heart. As Alexander Solshenitsyn, a major prophet of our time, said in his famous speech at Harvard:

I have spent all my life under a Communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is scarcely taking advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man's noblest impulses.

There is still time to heed Solzhenitsyn's advice. The question is, do we have the will and the wisdom?

Harry Antonides
Harry Antonides

Harry Antonides came to Canada in 1948, initially working as a farm hand and railway labourer. After over a decade working in a chemical plant in Sarnia, Ontario, Harry joined the newly forming Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) in 1962 as a field representative. By 1970 Harry became director of research and education. In 1974, he was a founding member of the Work Research Foundation (now Cardus) and publisher of their sole publication, Comment magazine. A prolific writer and dynamic speaker, Harry delivered lectures all over North America and published numerous articles, reviews, and essays. He is author of several books on Christianity, labour, and economics, including Multinationals and the Peacable Kingdom (1978) and Stones for Bread: The Social Gospel and its Contemporary Legacy (1985). Harry is retired and lives with his wife Janet in Willowdale, Ontario.


Download and Share Articles From The Comment Reader

An introduction to Public Theology for the Common Good

Want more of the same fresh, thought-provoking content delivered right to your inbox once a week?