Inner City Diary
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Unions must differentiate between need and greed
February 2, 2003
I've come to face the fact that I'll probably never be rich. The Publisher's Clearing House van always misses my house. The few times I try the lottery, I usually get every number wrong.

I won't get rich from what I do, but I love my job. I'm a pastor. I'm not paid for the housing work I do, or for the community groups I've started, or for the different things I do to protect my neighbourhood.

I could have settled for the "normal" minister's gig - preach sermons, sit on church committees, visit my church members.

But I'm driven by passions I don't always understand to work aggressively on solving some neighbourhood problems. I'm not quite sure if it's part of what I do or who I am, and I can't imagine stopping. But all this stuff takes time. My normal day starts around 4:30am and I walk home around 5:30pm. Sometimes I have evening meetings.

My wife recently divided my wage by my hours and wanted to inform me that I wasn't even getting minimum wage. “How do you feel about that?” she asked. Her concern was not primarily financial, being concerned about balancing more than the chequebook. We had a good talk.

Later that day, I recalled a discussion with a union friend. I tried imagining if someone formed a preacher's union and lobbied for more money, benefits, and time off. But the coercive structure of a union would likely bankrupt the church or prevent most of our many unique and valuable ministries. I recalled a buddy joking that if preachers went on strike, most would not be missed.

I'm grateful to be doing what I'm doing. I love my Boss and my coworkers, and can't imagine working anywhere else. For me, union talk seems quite irrelevant - if not irreverent.

Some of my first impressions of unions weren't exactly positive. While in college, I worked full-time during the day as a painter in Gimbels, a New York department store. Afterwards, I ran across the street to my job as a busboy in a steak pub. I slept when I could and I worked my butt off.

But I still remember the day this grumpy-looking guy watched me as I painted. After awhile, he blurted, “You shouldn't be working here!” Surprised at his comment, I asked, “Why? Do you think I'm doing a lousy job?” He said he was “union,” and that my job should be given to a union person. He told me I better quit.

He didn't work there. I wasn't violating any store policies, or compromising quality. He didn't give a rip about my need to pay for an education. He just told me to quit.

I was mad and told him to take a hike! After some angry grumbling, he left. At home, I recounted the story. My dad got very serious very quickly. “You better be careful how you talk. Watch if you're being followed after work. Did he see what car you drive? Be careful where you park.”

I couldn't believe it. I thought this was a philosophical difference. All of a sudden it was sounding like I had crossed swords with the mob. I refuse to cowtow to bullies.

I have friends who own companies that would go broke if forced to unionize. They are not greedy capitalist swine. They are conscientious, very fair to their workers and among the most generous people I know.

But I also have conscientious and gracious friends who are union reps. They work hard and don't pick needless fights. They don't justify ineptitude or inefficiencies.

When times are tight, I hope we can work together to differentiate needs from greeds. There's always someone somewhere who's got better wages, benefits, or workplace. But some people in my neighbourhood would love to have a job paying half of some of these union wages - without a loss of productivity.

Recently, several inner-city parents confided that fruitless discussions with school administration about an inept teacher in a public school drove them to consider correspondence courses or changing schools. The union was frustrating employee accountability. Unions haven't always been supportive of innovation and efficiencies. They don’t talk about sharing liability like they fight for profits. I’ve seen cases where shielding a unionized drunk, crank or inefficiency took priority over improving business and delivering services.

As unions spin their message and craft their collective agreements, I somehow hope they think more about solidarity with the even less fortunate rather than just catching up to the more fortunate.

Since that day in New York, I’ve heard lots of union hype about worker solidarity, but I’ll never forget the union that tried to steal my job.
Copyright 2003
Rev. Harry Lehotsky
Rev. Harry Lehotsky is Director of New Life Ministries, a community ministry in the inner-city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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