Throwback Thursday: Labour Relations in a Christian Framework
Over the summer, ARPA Canada will be re-posting an old blog or article each Thursday. We hope that you enjoy these blasts from the past as we re-live some of the major content, issues, and campaigns of ARPA’s past 15 years.
This article was originally published in 2007 by a member of a local ARPA chapter in British Columbia. At the time, ARPA Canada was a much more decentralized organization where local chapters and individuals contributed blogs and articles for ARPA Canada to publish. Oftentimes, these blogs and articles investigated issues that haven’t seen a lot of attention before.
Having spent most of my working life as an employer but still keenly recalling my time as an employee, I have always had a great interest in how to find an equitable balance in that delicate and always shifting relationship which is to be found in the workplace. Only perhaps in the marriage relationship is there a greater potential for trouble and strife, and conversely also fulfillment, in our human interactions. The present strife, which surrounds us in the secular workplace where employees and employers often square off against each other in a struggle for power also leaves its imprint upon our attitudes. When people who are committed Christians deal with each other in labour relations, there we too often find discord, bitterness, and frustration. The words of Genesis 3:17 – “cursed is the ground because of you, through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life” – point to the harsh reality that sin introduced into the arena of work. I believe it is possible to find harmony. In order to find this harmony, I will attempt to focus on what Scripture has to say about our labour and its purpose in our life. My intention is to involve situations, which speak to all of us, and it is my hope that this article will lead to a better understanding of an often confused and bitter situation.
I will, because of the large scope of the topic, restrict this article to the following points:
1. A brief history of labour relations in world and church history.
2. What does the Bible say about authority, ownership, labour, and accountability
3. The impact of worldly standards on our views regarding labour relations
4. Is it possible to have Labour relations based on Christian Principles?
1. On average, the history of the wage earner and his or her boss is, to put it succinctly, dismal. In the Old Testament, we hear of constant attempts by the Israelites to enslave their fellow church members. Leviticus 25:39-55 speaks about the Lord’s laws to prevent the enslavement of fellow Israelites. Jeremiah 22:13 warns about the punishment for those who cheat their neighbours out of their wages.
In the early Christian Church, members were allowed to have slaves and Paul does not deny the legal right of Onesimus to own Philemon. The Middle Ages showed an almost uniform exploitation and abuse of the poor and those who were not fortunate enough to belong to a guild. The Industrial Revolution and the economics of competitive capitalism brought with it horrors of child labour, poor wages, and terrible working environments. I am also sure that there were many instances of compassion and fairness that were practiced by many Christian, as well as non-Christian employers, but it does not change the fact that in general mankind, including Christians, behaved poorly to those whom they employed or owned.
History has shown that people who have power, with no checks and balances, will nearly always abuse those who are under them. Governments, masters, and employers all need to be accountable. Even when stringent controls are in place, cases of abuse and injustice, remain prevalent. History has shown that neither laws, different economic “isms,” nor paternalistic emotions, are able by themselves to adequately safeguard the dignity and well-being of employer and employee. It requires a common goal, a striving towards a higher plateau, to bind employees and employers in harmony. It requires more than a contract. A commitment to each other in the form of a covenant, embracing as many commonly advantageous goals as possible, which are based on the ten commandments of God’s Word, is necessary.
2. Unless we belong to the civil service, are employed by school boards, or are called by churches, most of us work in a capitalistic economic environment. This implies that the owners of capital (money, assets, machinery, and buildings) employ people who are utilized to produce more capital. In order to produce, we require two resources: capital and labour.
The Bible does not teach us that the possession of wealth is wrong. On the contrary, men such as Abraham, Job, Solomon, and many more were blessed directly by the Lord with great wealth. It is also true that wealth which is amassed without recognizing that the Lord is the primary owner and giver is a snare to sin. Those then who are given the means of capital are called to responsible stewardship. Even when this responsibility is lacking, we may never condone the revolutionary notion that wealth may be forcibly taken and redistributed, as was the case during the terror reign of Communism. Also today many unions deny the authority that owners of capital have over their enterprises. Ownership of possessions and the authority to use those means as stewards of the King has a solid scriptural basis. The calling to be responsible and compassionate in this usage is also firmly grounded in the Bible. Read 1 Samuel 25’s narration of David and Nabal.
The area where so many employers err is how they view the labour component in their desire to produce goods and gain profit. When the desire to gain wealth gets control of the psyche then the people who provide the labour become disenfranchised pawns in the struggle for power. The abuse of workers in the 1800’s and the beginning of the 1900’s (the Industrial Revolution), resulted in the formation of labour unions to protect the rights of the workers. This resulted in the same viewpoint that was shown by many employers. Labour was reduced to a mechanistic component of man’s existence.
Scripture deals with “labour in a much wider sense than merely to toil. Travail, anguish, toil, fruits of your labour, wealth, and riches are all under the “labour of our hands”. Also in Christ, our labour is redeemed. Our work is a very important part of our daily life of service to our Lord. Revelations 14:13 states that the dead will rest from their labour and that their deeds will follow them. From this, it can be seen that the labour of the believer is a fulfilling of their divine calling in this life and in the life to come. The employer must take into account that labour is not a mere bookkeeping entry in the quest for profit, but is an integral component of the workers’ well-being which enables them to serve the Lord.
Both employer and employee are accountable before God. They are both required to work together in such a way that the main priority remains seeking “the Kingdom of God” rather than dollars. That does not say that our wages do not impact our lifestyle or that they have no importance, but the priority should be serving God. Decency and dignity grounded on mutual respect for each other, based on the Word, would insure that no stumbling block would be placed on our path as heirs of life eternal. Often a “root of bitterness” can grow and blind a person to the love that is required. In Job 31:13-15, Job eloquently illustrates that, no matter how rich and powerful one can become, God will demand an accounting of how we have dealt with our fellow man. Love and concern should replace confrontation and hatred, especially between those who are one in faith
3. We are required to be, “in” but not “part” of this world. All around us we are confronted and influenced by worldly attitudes in labour relations. Workers’ rights, strikes, lockouts, violent confrontation, attrition, global competition, and many more buzz words and slogans fly around our ears and enter our minds. Christian labourers are judged to be fools when they refuse to join organizations by which they can gain increased wages and benefits. Only during the last decades do we see alternatives emerging which are showing that the antagonistic “us versus them” attitude is becoming archaic in the modern workplace. Global competition and increased emphasis on quality demand versatility that is diminishing the numbers and power of the trade union movement. It is even apparent to many secular labour analysts that the “common goal approach” is the best way for labour relations to operate in any environment. Old attitudes die hard and also among us we can hear and see the hatred expressed against the bosses, and the contempt held by employers for their workers. The evil one finds many opportunities to use the baser emotions to his advantage when it concerns money and power.
4. Anyone who has had the opportunity to be involved with any form of contractual obligation soon comes to realize that in our relativistic society a negotiated contract done in bad faith is not worth the paper it is written on. Likewise the collective bargaining procedure, so extolled as a pillar of democracy, needs to be buttressed with the big stick of the strike, in order to work in the adversarial system. Having said that I think that a contract or bargaining procedure based on the scriptural idea of a covenant relationship could be an excellent basis for an agreement.
A covenant relationship would not only include such items as compensation, working conditions, etc, but would also include active participation by all in the affairs, goals, and operation of the enterprise. It could also include the stimulus of a negotiated share of the profits for the employees. It would embody mutual love and respect with the common responsibilities that fellow Christians should show each other. In a covenant built on practical trust, there would be active participation by all to work for a common goal. That agreement must have God’s Word as its arbitrator. Then a framework can be used to tackle such problems as how to decide on a pay scale for an employee whose needs are large but whose skills are minimal or are declining due to age or handicap. In a competitive industry which uses profit sharing as an incentive, the under-achieving employee is often viewed with dislike by management and other employees. Unions often claim that only under their protection can such a person safeguard their job. Strikes, feather bedding, slowdowns, and work-to-rule tactics are all used to force the employer to comply with union demands. Only under a covenantal agreement using impartial mediation could such a situation be negotiated with a real concern for all the people involved.
Another model which enjoys acceptance in B.C. and which some people in our churches work under is the role of the subcontractor. These mini-entrepreneurs retain all the freedom and independence of an employer and contract out their skills at a bargained rate. It is a relationship which encourages private initiative and gives the sub-contractor a large degree of self-respect.
When economic realities intrude, between fellow Christians, demands can often be greedy and reactions crude. Clearly worded contracts, realistic wages, and a fair mediation process are necessary. Christians who feel that no contracts or standards of conduct need to be spelled out are usually in for a rude awakening. Our Lord did not leave us in the dark when it came to what He expects of us. From His Word, we are made aware that we possess only a small part of the righteousness necessary for a harmonious relationship.
I have always believed that it was wrong to belong to the secular trade unions that I have been familiar with. They hamper our calling to fear, serve, and love our God as our “raison d’etre”. The Christian Labour Association of Canada is one organization where a concerted effort has been put forth to allow workers to organize without the revolutionary aspects of secular unions. Harry Antonides, spokesman and theorist for the C.L.A.C. correctly asserts that modern men who live by bread alone are dying of spiritual hunger. He claims it to be the CLAC’s purpose to make man whole again in the realm of labour practices.
“Radical changes are called for by management and workers, management must let go of its capitalistic bias, management rights, and its selfish individualism. Workers must drop their self-centred demands and their leaders have to give daring and responsible leadership. Only if this happens,” claims Antonidas, “will our western democracies survive”.
Unfortunately, the CLAC still feels it necessary to include the strike weapon in its arsenal.
Unionism is declining in the face of global competition because its encrusted traditions do not allow for dynamic change to meet that competition. Can we as Christian labourers, managers, and employers implement a framework that will allow us to continue to have a place in the Canadian economic sun? World history is in the hands of our God. He demands that we be faithful to the first rule of economics, “love our neighbour as ourselves”. Now that would be a radical change in today’s workplace.
Is this restoration of man as a liberated worker possible in today’s economic reality? Can we compete in a vicious “survival of the fittest” climate? Let the words of 2 Timothy 1:7 speak for us, “for God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control”.
Source Texts: Genesis 2:15; Genesis 3:17-18; Job 31:13-15; Psalm 127; Proberbs 16:3; Isaiah 55:2; Matthew 20:1-16; Ephesians 6:5-9; Timothy 6: 12; Philemon 1:8-21