Sask. woman exempted from union membership due to religious beliefs, says labour board
A Saskatchewan woman has been exempted from union membership in her workplace because of her religious beliefs.
In a ruling late last month, the Saskatchewan Labour Relations board granted the government worker's request. She argued her Jehovah's Witness beliefs prohibit her from joining political organizations. The woman, who represented herself at the hearing, said that includes unions.
"...she believes that she is to have only one loyalty and it is to the kingdom of God," states the Sept. 29 decision.
The woman acknowledged that not all Jehovah's Witness adherents feel this way about unions, and there is no specific religious teaching prohibiting union membership. She said this is her interpretation of her faith.
"She acknowledges that many governments and unions try to improve the conditions of peoples' lives but there are limitations to what earthly governments and political entities can really accomplish. The kingdom of God is a solution to all problems on earth and will bring about the conditions to benefit all people. It will replace all other earthly governments and will remove any need for 'man-made' institutions," states the decision.
It's unclear whether the woman was asked if she considers her employer, the Government of Saskatchewan, to be a political organization as well.
Even though the woman is now exempt from paying union dues, she will still receive the full benefits of any work conditions negotiated by the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees' Union (SGEU).
"This is very unusual. Many labour lawyers would probably never encounter this kind of issue in the course of their practice," Queen's University law professor Kevin Banks said.
He said cases like this go back decades, but that there were likely only a handful of them across the country during that time.
Banks said the board made it clear this was an exceptional circumstance. He said the woman was required to prove a deep, long standing belief, so he doesn't think this will lead to abuse of the rules.
"The board went into some depth and care in coming to its conclusion that these [beliefs] were sincerely held," Banks said.
York University law professor Valerio De Stefano agreed that careful consideration was given to this complex case.
"On the one hand, the need not to undermine union security clauses [is] a lynchpin of our labour legislation. On the other, the protection of profoundly and demonstrably held religious beliefs," De Stefano said in an emailed statement.
"While it is questionable that unions can be considered 'political entities' in our system, the Board decided not to engage in a theological examination of the merits of those beliefs and decided to accept the worker's request for an exclusion. At the same time, it stressed out the exceptional nature of this exclusion from our model of industrial relations."
An SGEU official said they have no comment on the matter.