A rural Ontario furniture maker shut its doors last month after employees decided to join a union, saying its religion did not allow for organized labour.
Gingrich Woodcraft, a furniture manufacturer in Devlin, Ont., a small town that straddles the United States border, is the target of a labour board complaint filed by Unifor, which organized the company’s 25 employees. The workers are mostly cabinetmakers and office and clerical staff.
According to court documents filed by the union, employees reached out to Unifor in July concerning general dissatisfaction with the way Gingrich operated and managed employees.
On Aug. 5, the union filed a certification application and on Aug. 13, the representation vote was successful.
Then, on Aug. 17, all employees were terminated by the company’s owner Leon Gingrich, who explained the Bible required him to “live peaceably with all men.” He said his Mennonite beliefs prevented him from employing a unionized workforce.
In a notice to employees on that same day, Gingrich explained the reason behind the closure.
“Each of you that work here were made aware in the hiring process that as an employer, we strive to operate with behaviour based on biblical principles,” he said in the letter.
“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,” he said.
But labour laws dictate that employees have the right to join a union, and Gingrich’s employees are protected under the Ontario Labour Relations Act. Shutting down constituted an illegal lockout and demonstrated unfair labour practices, which prompted the union to launch a complaint with the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB).
“Unifor was very surprised by the decision of Gingrich Woodcraft to close its business and illegally lock out its employees. It is not often that employers will demonstrate such a blatant and public disregard for labour laws and workers’ rights,” said Sarah Lesniewski, a spokesperson for the union.
“The law in Ontario is very clear — workers are free to join a union and cannot be dismissed, intimidated or discriminated against for doing so.”
Farah Baloo, Unifor’s lawyer on the file, said the religious argument is not relevant to the case, which should be open-and-shut.
“It has nothing to do with freedom of religion and it is completely to do with the right of employees to be represented by a trade union. I think it’s a post facto justification for illegal conduct — it’s not relevant,” said Baloo.
The union is seeking 52 weeks’ pay for employees as well as back pay for any lost wages. Unifor is also seeking damages of $10,000 for organizational and bargaining expenses.
Whose right is it anyway?
But Dan Matson, counsel for Leon Gingrich, said the owners are entitled to religious rights under the law as well.
“Based on Bible principles, their faith states that they must live peaceably amongst all men and it is their belief that this cannot be accomplished with the adversarial processes that come with a labour union,” said Matson, adding the right to unionize doesn’t necessarily trump the right to live according to individual faith.
“Gingrich Woodcraft recognizes the freedom of association and the right to unionize that comes with that freedom, but also takes the position that they have the freedom to live according to their faith and therefore have the right to choose whether or not to operate.”
The Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) union said the situation is an unfortunate one overall.
“As a trade union that embraces the teachings that we read about in the Bible, I don’t know if our approach would have salvaged the relationship given the statements that the employer has made, saying that any trade union is incompatible with their beliefs,” said Andrew Regnerus, CLAC’s construction co-ordinator for Ontario.
“CLAC comes from a Christian point of view and does collective bargaining, and we believe that certainly is defensible from a faith-based or Bible-based viewpoint,” he said.
While it is unlikely the OLRB will force Gingrich to reopen its doors, one possible outcome is the employees and union will be compensated for the closure, Regnerus said.
Employers whose religion dictates the terms of employment are rare in Canada, and even rarer when a union is involved, said Baloo. While the labour relations act has protections in place for employees wishing to opt out of a union shop, there aren’t such provisions for employers.
The labour board hearings are scheduled for Sept. 30 and Oct. 1.
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