Labor Unions and the Christian Work Force
As long as I have been a Christian ( a long time, even in geologic terms), when discussions turned to slogging it out at the local coal mine, labor unions have been considered anathema by the Church. But are they? Does the Bible really condemn labor unions?
Two New Testament passages are usually trotted out to shut down any give-and-take discussion of the issue: Ephesians 6:5, 6; and Colossians 3:22-24. The problem in applying these verses without debate is that the verses are specific to a unique time and within certain societies: ancient cultures in which the majority of people were slaves.
In New Testament Rome, slaves made up slightly over fifty percent of the population. A safe assumption is that they did not unionize. Ancient Greece was even worse. Attica (the area of the Pelopponesian Peninsula [Athens, Sparta, Corinth, etc.]) had ten-thousand citizens, twenty-thousand non-citizen residents, and eighty-thousand slaves. So, let’s not consider the golden age of employee/employer relationships as being the time during which the Bible was written. There are, however, general principles that can be taken from the two noted passages and others like them.
When workers went on strike in this supposed golden age of labor, it was called a slave uprising and was handled accordingly, just ask Spartacus. Even after the end of slavery, some employers still abused their workers. In 1911, 146 young girls, died in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City because the elevators did not work and the workers were locked in by those who managed the factory (they did not want the girls leaving early).
· God is ultimately your employer and your boss is merely the middle man. Your Divine Emloyer is the one to whom you are answerable.
· In our present world, we have negotiated rights as employees, whether they come from the government or from labor unions.
· We are answerable to God for our actions and demeanor on the job.
· We must allow our Christian ethics to inform our behavior on the job.
When Tennessee Ernie Ford sang , he was singing about history in America.
You load sixteen tons, what do you get Another day older and deeper in debt Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go I owe my soul to the company store.
Do you really think God wants us to return to those days?
I recently reread a book on applying Christian principles in the work place and had to reject it as historically and ethically inaccurate. The author harkened back to the days of the robber barons who lived it up on the backs of laborers who were housed in cold-water flats and treated almost as land-bound serfs. But this author praised the time when labor unions were not part of the landscape. It is true that unions can be as power hungry as the robber barons of an earlier day, but they were necessary to control the unsepeakable abuses of the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, and the DuPonts, among many others.
In closing, let me list three general principles that can be lifted without distortion from the passages listed above.
· We are not slaves, we are employees who have contracted with our employers. We trade our hours for the boss’s money.
· We have a greater Master whose commands trump all earthly masters.
· Earthly social systems can mitigate against the abuses of power and greed that brought about the need for the modern labor unions.
Let’s just remember who actually placed us in the workplace.