Upon reading both the signs of the times, and the 2009 encyclical, Charity in Truth, you might be tempted to conclude that Pope Benedict was offering a prophetic description of the 2011 labour scene in Canada.
He noted: "Through the combination of social and economic change, trade unions organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labour unions."
Beginning with the Canadian Auto Workers' brief strike against Air Canada in mid-June, the Conservative government has taken an aggressive stance against strikes which Labour Minister Lisa Raitt said threaten the economy. The CAW and Air Canada decided to arbitrate their pension dispute before back-to-work legislation could take effect.
Legislation imposed on Canada Post and its locked-out workers has saddled the workers with lower pay raises than the employer had initially proposed in bargaining. It is important to remember that the union was locked out; they were not on strike.
One might well ask: Why didn't the government use its power or influence to end the lockout? We could have put up with rotating strikes for a while and eventually Canada Post would have sorted the situation out with the union.
Meanwhile, the Public Service Alliance of Canada is predicting a bitter fight over government plans for job cuts.
Hard times do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers.
Pope Benedict, in the same paragraph cited above), added: "The repeated calls issued with the Church's social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, of the promotion of workers' association that can defend their right must therefore be honoured today even more than in the past, as prompt and far-sighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level."
Catholic social teaching supports the right of workers to choose whether to organize, join a union and bargain collectively, and to exercise these rights without reprisal.
Workers, owners, employers and unions should work together to create decent jobs, build a more just economy and advance the common good.
Such teaching is more than 100 years old. Pope John Paul II in 1991 stated: "Furthermore, society and the state must ensure wage levels adequate for the maintenance of the worker and his family, including a certain amount for savings. This requires a continuous effort to improve workers' training and capacity so that their work will be more skilled and productive, as well as careful controls and adequate legislative measure to block shameful forms of exploitation, especially to the disadvantage of the most vulnerable workers, of immigrants and those on the margins of society.
"The role of trade unions in negotiating minimum salaries and working conditions is decisive in this area."
There are several reasons why unions should be regarded as a social good.
Unions enable workers to have a collective voice in society and to have input into the shape our society takes, just as do business interests, professional groups and cultural bodies. Unions thus have a "social" role and not just a "business" one.
Moreover, time lost through strikes is less than 0.5 per cent of all hours worked. This is a small price to pay for a social institution that protects freedom and gives people an effective voice in both their workplace and their society.
Labour unions are human organizations. They suffer from the failings found in all things human and, like any other human institution, they can sometimes disappoint us. They are also democratic institutions; their decisions reflect both the strengths and the weaknesses of positions based on majority vote.
Union activity, of its very nature, tends to be public and visible. There is also the fact that unions sometimes represent a challenge to well-established interests. For all these reasons, unions often receive a bad press.
Our basic challenge is to apply moral principles to the signs of the times. There is lots of room for improvement.