catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 21 :: 2003.11.07 — 2003.11.20


Summer at the CLAC

Guttural reflections from Brian the Intern

Summer jobs for students: they are usually seen as low paying, physically exhausting positions meant to refill the coffers of the poor student so that she can return to school the following year. Often, summer jobs, though they are sometimes refreshing and indeed quite enjoyable, are essentially non-vocational; that is, they don’t necessarily have a direct connection with the work that one believes one is called to do in their life. The student at the end of the summer often quips,
“It was a great summer, but I wouldn’t want to do that for the rest of my life!”

This summer I had the opportunity to work as an intern for the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC). The Christian Labour Association is a Christian trade union in Canada that represents workers in numerous sectors of the labor force across the country. The union’s approach to labor relations is based on Christian social principles and attempts to create a workplace where workers and management work together in a mutually beneficial relationship rather than the traditionally adversarial power relationship that marks traditional North American unions. The focus is on economic justice rather than class, power or domination.

I was quite familiar with the principles of the CLAC and its theoretical background from my involvement with the Ontario Student Solidarity Local, but I was curious to see how Christian social principles work themselves out in the “working” world. There are a number of things that struck me from my months at the CLAC.

I was struck mostly by the need for Christian social movement, particularly in the field of labor relations. Working at the CLAC placed me in the midst of one of Canada’s leading unions and its work. Reading case law, participating in organizing campaigns and dealing with the everyday concerns of workers and companies allowed me a clear view of the nuts and bolts of Canadian labor relations. I saw first hand the need for unions, the lack of integrity of employers (and employees), and also the damage that more adversarial unions can do.

A specific example of where the need for representation was apparent was at a home for disabled individuals. The wages were below the industry standard, the working conditions were not consistent and the employees were lacking a representative means by which these things could be worked out with the employer. In fact, this same home had attempted to organize a number of times but was unsuccessful because the employer had said that a union would lessen the care for the residents. This of course was not true, but the fact that the workers saw this as a possibility was a testament to the reputation of adversarial unions. The need for a Christian union that works hard to represent the needs of workers while still maintaining an environment where work can be done well in cooperation with the employer became all the more apparent because of my experience with this home. I was also particularly struck by an experience in which CLAC was seen as a union that was not “tough enough to get the money and respect I deserve.” Rather than seeing a union as a unique social institution that strives for just and economically feasible solutions to labor problems, unions were seen as bodies that had to fight at all costs to provide individuals with more and more money and benefits. Seeing socialist rhetoric combined with individual interest struck me as a strange and dangerous dynamic.

The difficulty of acting as a unique and principled player on the Canadian labor scene, as well as the triviality of some daily tasks also influenced my summer. I found that the larger kingdom vision of working in a Christian trade union could get lost in the mud of a construction site, the back rooms of a nursing home or in filling out government paperwork. However, the community of CLAC employees and the gratitude of the workers remedied this loss of vision. I was deeply impressed by the strong sense of Christian community within the offices of the CLAC. All of the employees, from the office head, to the accountants, to the support staff exhibited a sense of calling that went beyond just doing “union” work. A telling example of this sense of calling was constantly exhibited in the office head who, when we were discussing the sometimes mundane work that needed to be put in, would say, “This is IT man, this is where it counts!”

I left at the end of the summer deeply impressed. I was impressed at the CLAC’s ability to institute Christian social principles of fairness, dignity of work, and economic justice in such a way that they are now one of the largest and fastest growing unions in Canada. I left also with a sense of being part of a community that took seriously the call to make the gospel apparent in the everyday workings of our world.

It was a great summer and I can see how some people would want to do this for the rest of their lives!

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