When people think of trade unionists, they don’t often think of vicars, but Unite is as ever a big and growing tent of workers who – despite holding a diversity of views — are united in their belief in solidarity.
Reverend Chris Haywood (pictured below with wife Georgie) is one such newly minted member of Unite’s faith worker branch, which now exceeds more than 2,000 members and includes those of a number of religions, from Judaism to Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and others.
New to Unite, Chris is also relatively new to the clergy itself – in his mid-40s, he decided to leave a 25-year career as a podiatrist in the NHS to pursue his new calling. He was ordained two and half years ago.
“I remember sitting in my car before leaving my previous job and just suddenly breaking down in tears,” he told UniteLive. “My wife later said that it was me grieving, to leave a profession I loved. But ultimately I had a definite sense of God calling me.”
One thing Chris has been all his life is a union member, so joining Unite was a natural choice even in a vocation not known for trade unionism.
“I’m thankful to Unite rep Pete Hobson [who chairs the Unite section of the Church of England clergy advocates] for coming to speak to us about how a trade union can support people in the clergy. I was also encouraged to join by many of my colleagues when I was first ordained.”
Chris says he’s come to understand why having a trade union by your side as a faith worker is so important. Vicars don’t enjoy many of the employment rights that most of us do, because they are considered ‘officeholders’ and not employees or workers.
“I like to think of what we do as very similar to lorry drivers – you have an awful lot of responsibility but very few protections,” he explains. “You have to navigate a lot of regulations (in our case, for example, Canon Law) but you’re mostly on your own. It’s a very isolating at times and that’s why that support is all the more vital.”
Chris said that beyond the value of representation, being part of a union helps give him greater insight into people he serves in his parish.
“It’s a way to connect with our community, most of whom are working-class people. Being part of a union gives me greater confidence in supporting the people in our area to the best of my ability,” he said.
Chris will be among the estimated 1m people working on Christmas Day. While for many of these workers working over Christmas isn’t ideal, Chris says he loves it.
“For clergy, we’re essentially on call on Christmas,” he said. “I spent last Christmas in hospital with an elderly lady who comes to our church who was very ill,” he said. “To me it was really important to provide that comfort and support to people who are having a tough time at Christmas.”
Chris reminds Unite members this Christmas to remember the story of Jesus’ birth – after all, those who first bore witness, the shepherds, were working people just like them.
“Shepherds were the first night shift workers. They worked unsocial hours; they were on the margins of society,” he explained. “Yet they were the first to encounter the saviour and bring the joyful news to others.”
Wishing all a happy Christmas, Chris urged faith workers to join Unite.
“I was speaking to a friend of mine who is now a head teacher and we just came to the conclusion that no matter where we go in life, we’re union men at heart. I’m truly of the belief that no matter where you work, you can always benefit from the support of a union.”
Find out more about Unite’s Faith workers branch, and how you can join, here.