Labour relations board grants union exemption based on religious grounds

Electrician argued joining a union went against his religious beliefs

Workers can refuse to join a union if doing so violates their religious beliefs. A recent ruling by the Ontario Labour Relations Board put the spotlight on what’s required for the religious beliefs to be considered legitimate.

Victor Allan started working for Boldt Electrical Co. in 1996 as a journeyman electrician. On June 1, 2004, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers was certified to represent employees at the company. At that point, Boldt Electrical became subject to a requirement that its employee be members of the union.

Allan applied for an exemption to the requirement under s. 52 of Ontario’s Labour Relations Act, 1995, on the basis of his religion.

Union said legislation should not apply to construction industry

The union opposed the application. It argued there are policy reasons why s. 52 should not be applied to the construction industry: There is a high degree of mobility and a relatively quick turnover of employment in construction, and s. 52 is designed as a protection for workers in stable employment.

The union also said there could be significant difficulties in administering the financial arrangements required by s. 52. (For more information on this and other aspect of the section’s provisions, see below.)

The union also questioned the sincerity of Allan’s religious commitment given that he had accepted improved pension and other benefits, and the raise from $22 to $30.37 an hour that resulted with unionization. Section 52 was not intended to permit a free ride to workers who wish to avoid their union obligations, the union said.

Onus on worker to prove religious beliefs are sincere

The Ontario Labour Relations Board said this was the first time it had to consider a s. 52 application in the construction industry. The onus is on the worker to establish the sincerity of his religious beliefs, and the board was satisfied Allan done so.

Allan was part of a fellowship of believers in Jesus Christ, sometimes called the Brethren. A central tenet of their beliefs is that the holy scripture permits only one assembly, that of the believers of Christ. Membership in a trade union, and all other associations and clubs, violates this tenet, known as the principle of separation.

Allan also believed in a second principle, that of master and bondsman, which also conflicts with belonging to a union. He said he owed a loyalty to his employer which would be disturbed if he belonged to a union and it acted on his behalf. The principal requires a direct relationship without a union or any other body as an intermediary.

To depend upon a union would detract from his belief that salvation is only through Jesus Christ, he said.

Worker had a “strong antipathy” towards unions: board

The board said Allan had a “strong antipathy to unions and union membership.” This was also religiously based, the board said.

Allan felt a union caused the relationship between master and bondsman to lose its intensity and cause workers to change their attitude towards their employer from obedience to disobedience.

The board found Allan’s religious conviction to be sincerely held and conscientious. He genuinely believed them, had held them over a period of time and they were based on a religious text. Allan routinely studied scripture and lived in a manner consistent with his beliefs, it said. Neither he or his family were involved in any voluntary associations, clubs or sports teams, it said.

How Allan justified taking the higher wages and benefits

The board accepted Allan’s rationale on how he reconciled his religious beliefs with having accepted the pay raise and other realities of his employment. As long as he played no part in union affairs, and as long as his employer was willing to pay him the higher wage, then it did not violate his religious principles to accept the raise.

Pension benefits, even though they accrue from a pooled fund, are given to him personally and are thus acceptable, he said.

The board said these were “somewhat tenuous explanations” but it did not mean Allan was insincere in his beliefs or was being disingenuous. One need not agree with Allan’s view or explanations, but they are nonetheless consistent with the religious principles he explained as part of his faith.

The board rejected other objections by the union. There may come a time, perhaps because of inordinate practical difficulties, when compelling policy considerations will lead the board to reject a religious exemption to an otherwise deserving applicant. But that’s not the case here.

Allan has been in stable employment since 1996. Section 52 was written with workers like him in mind, the board said. It allows two different facets of what is centrally important to an individual — their religious beliefs and their work — to co-exist, at least temporarily. There was no policy reason why Allan should not be given this protection, the board said.

For more information see:

Allan v. I.B.E.W., Local 586, 2005 CarswellOnt 4530, [2005] L.V.I. 3581-10 (Ont. L.R.B.)

The scope of s. 52 of Ontario’s Labour Relations Act, 1995

• Under s. 52 the board can exempt a worker from a requirement to join a trade union if the worker does not want to do so on religious grounds. An application for religious exemption must be made during the first collective agreement entered into which contains a mandatory union membership provision. If granted, the exemption applies only for the remainder of that first agreement. The provision is therefore not a general exemption, the Ontario Labour Relations Board reiterated – it is a temporary respite that provides a reasonable opportunity for an individual to seek other employment.

• If given the exemption, then fees, dues and other assessments usually paid to the union are instead given to a charitable organization agreed on by the employer and the union (Or if they can’t agree, selected by the board).

• While union fees and dues are addressed by s. 52, not everything else financial is. In this case, for example, there are several funds administered by the union (on its own or with the employers’ association) which the company contributes to on Allan’s behalf. These funds support such things as the pension fund and the health and welfare fund, and Allan is not exempt from having to contribute to them.

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