My last post ended with me asking if people could think of a more unlikely hotbed of trade unionism than Eton College. Heres a contender – the Church of England – another centuries old pillar of the English establishment that seems to have fallen to the brothers and sisters .
The thought of a load of Vicars getting organised may at first glance seem a bit comical (cue feeble puns about the trade union movement being a ‘broad church’) , but the situation that Revd. Mark Sharpe found himself placed is no laughing matter. According to UNITE,
“During his three-year tenure [as Rector of Teme Valley South in Worcestershire], Unite member Revd. Sharpe said that he has been subjected to constant verbal abuse; had his pet dog killed; and faeces smeared on his car and the tyres slashed. He lives in a vicarage infested by mice and frogs, with dangerous heating and electrical systems and where deadly asbestos has been found.”
Unlike many workers faced with this set of appalling circumstances Revd Sharpe couldn’t force his employers to intervene because according to the Church of England, he was employed by ‘god’ rather than the Church. God may be many things to many people, but according to the law of the land he is not an employer, and therefore his ‘workers’ are denied access to basic employment rights.
Now, however, it would seem that things are about to change. In a landmark case the Church has agreed that Revd Sharpe has the ‘status of worker’ meaning that,
“Should Revd. Sharpe’s case be upheld after any appeal, it will mean that ministers across the UK will be subject to legislation covering: health & safety, the national minimum wage, paid holidays, ‘whistle-blowing’, anti-discrimination, paid holidays, family-friendly flexible working policies, the working time directive, and unlawful deduction of wages.”
This case marks an important step in a long campaign waged by UNITE. Rachel Maskell – UNITE’s officer for the voluntary sector ( and an ex-Academy Organiser, natch) – has predicted the case could mean the biggest shake up for Ministers since the reformation.
Of course the relationship between faith and unions is not a new one; the TUC for example has long had a close working relationship with the Methodist Church – namecheck for George Loveless – (which does some interesting work with workplace chaplains), and more recently the Muslim Council of Britain. But hopefully this success will have a real impact upon those ‘working’ for faith groups. ‘Vocation’ and occupation are, for many of those working for faith groups, hard to separate and UNITE certainly hopes the case will make a difference for the estimated 2,500 ministers, rabbis. imams and clergy throughout Britain that it represents.