Opinion

A union for the clergy?

It's been done elsewhere. Would it work here?

By Craig D’Alton

February 7 2018I recently read an article about how a number of English clergy are joining the trades union Unite, which has developed a group for faith workers. In the United States, there has been a specific union for clergy and faith workers for some decades. I wonder, is it also time for a union to represent and assist clergy in Australia?

My first reaction is to say yes.

We live in a time when clergy are increasingly under profound stress, often with impossible workloads and competing job demands. More and more clergy are paid part-time for what is actually full-time work (especially female clergy and clergy from non-Anglo backgrounds), or have to combine what were formerly two or three full-time roles to put together a full stipend. Clergy often have to deal with poor or non-existent job descriptions, opaque hiring practices, and no proper contracts of employment. And then there is the whole area of abusive conduct by some, and the consequent professional standards arrangements for all. This has led to some clergy feeling that they are regarded as being guilty until proven innocent, not just by the general public, but also by the hierarchy.

Yes, perhaps we need a union.

My second reaction though, is to say “yes, but. . .”

The “but” arises from the fact that I would argue that the clergy, like those who work in academia, have been increasingly “proletarianised” over the past few decades, albeit without the protections hard won by the actual proletariat through their unions. Clergy used to be regarded as professionals, like doctors or lawyers; increasingly we are regarded as mere “employees”. I wonder whether instead, then, it is time to consider not a union, but a professional association for clergy – something like the Australian Medical Association, or the Law Institute. I’d certainly be up for joining such a thing if it existed!

Dr Craig D’Alton is Archdeacon of Melbourne and Vicar of St Mary’s North Melbourne.