Until recently, changes in the attitudes of employers and employees, backed up by a steady stream of legislation, have significantly reduced the number of damaging strikes taking place in the UK. Now, however, strikes, the threat of strikes and other forms of militant industrial action have been threatened in the health service, public transport and teaching professions.
Industrial disputes are once again an increasingly frequent occurrence, though many remain out of the spotlight of widespread press and media attention. Most disputes are local, short-lived and over minor issues, and do not involve strike action.
Each new dispute, however isolated and unpublicized, has the potential to present Christians employed in the affected workplaces with a dilemma over the attitude they should take when their section or department is suddenly embroiled in an employer-employee conflict.
There are principles which can guide the Christian to a thought-out, biblically-consistent stance on issues which may arise. A study of the issues will help every employed Christian, whether on the shop-floor or in the professional world. It may well prove easier to consider them now, in a general way, detached from any particular dispute, since there is little enough time to think things through after a dispute has suddenly begun.
The first priority is to judge the merits of the issue which has led to the dispute and the resultant industrial action. How am I to do this?
1, Dispassionately. Many people tend to believe either that the management is always right, or that the workforce is always right. We need to guard against this, carefully finding out the facts, and judging the issues on those facts, before lining up on either or neither side of a dispute.
2. Frequently. When a dispute first arises, the Christian has much to consider and pray over; but not only then. Disputes do not remain constant. Issues can change. Desired results can change. Tactics can change. A Christian needs to apply biblical principles to the changes which occur, and to be wary of too great a commitment to first impressions. A frequent review will be needed of what the dispute is currently about, and of the tactics being used by both sides.
3. From the Scriptures. Having established the facts, the Christian should look for and examine closely any Scriptures relevant to the issues at stake in the dispute, using the principles they advance to help form sound judgements on them.
For instance, if to maximize his own advantages, the employer has broken a promise which he was able to meet, but has failed to fulfil, there is a principle in James 5:4 which touches on this.
If the dispute is over the refusal of a reasonable request for a change in working practices, there is a principle in Ephesians 6:58 which applies. If the issue is about the vexed question of differentials, there are principles in Matthew 20:115 which relate to that.
Such Scriptures do not dictate whether or not a person should go on strike. They help to judge the case presented on either side. They help us to understand God’s view of the issues. The Bible is not an industrial relations manual, but as we find out what pleases God, we shall be better equipped to steer a faithful course through disputes which may arise in our workplace.
Second, how does industrial action fit in with a Christian understanding of what work is?
The Bible strongly advocates work as part of the normal Christian life, and gives several reasons for this.
1, Work makes good use of our talents and abilities, and is a means by which we can make a useful contribution to society. Our abilities are God-given, and the use of them is part of our stewardship (Matthew 25:15; Titus 3:14).
2. Work is the means by which we are enabled to provide for ourselves, our families and others in need (Ephesians 4:28; 1 Timothy 5:8; Titus 3:14).
3. Work is a discipline against idleness and its harmful effects (2 Thessalonians 3:6,12).
How, if at all, would these principles be threatened by our involvement in the various kinds of industrial action open to an employee?
Third, where do my loyalties lie?
In connection with industrial disputes, different valid loyalties may appear to collide. In determining our own actions, how are we to evaluate our loyalty to God, to our family, to our employer, to our colleagues and to fellow-Christians? What are the essential ingredients of these differing loyalties, and where do the collisions occur? In a dispute, can all these loyalties be reconciled? Will the honouring of our loyalty to God, once we know where that lies, fulfil all our other real loyalties also? There is room to comment on just two loyalties:
1, Loyalty to our employer. It is impossible to go on strike without breaching an employment contract. Is an employ a one of those of whom Romans 13:7 speaks when it declares: ‘Give everyone what you owe him’? Is breaching a contract a denial of a Christian’s word or promise-a failure to ‘let your “Yes” be “Yes”‘? (Matthew 5:37). If this is to be interpreted in this absolute way, then no Christian should ever go on strike. This point is a serious one.
Or can the ‘breach of contract’ dilemma be answered by an argument that circumstances are no longer the same as those on which the contract was based, but have been changed unilaterally by the employer, thus causing the dispute.
Is the ‘balance of evils’ argument viable in these circumstances? This is a perilous calculation for fallen man to make, but are there ever circumstances in which a Christian can break a contract in order to help to rectify another evil, equally wrong in the sight of God? What priority should we give the ‘balance of evils’ argument, compared with the search for other ways, short of breaking a contract, of rectifying the injustice or evil?
2. Loyalty and the local church. In a sma1l town, any major industrial dispute will be front-page news in the local press, and those working at the company or authority affected will be in the public eye.
In these circumstances it would be most helpful for the Christian involved in an industrial dispute to inform his or her church leaders about it, and to listen to any advice they are able to offer. If the details can be explained to the whole church by the church officers, it would result not only in better understanding, but prayer, sympathy and encouragement for the fellow-member. There are few worse experiences for a Christian than to believe that he is acting correctly in difficult circumstances, and yet to be under criticism from his fellow-Christians for doing it.
Fourth, how will involvement in industrial action affect my witness?
One definition of Christian witness might be ‘commending Christ by life and word’. By this definition, witness occurs every day, and involves both what we do and whet we say. But it is not essentially about pleasing people, or persuading them to agree with you. It is about commending Christ. A Christian is not a better witness because he takes a particular view of an industrial dispute. His best witness at this, as at any other, time is a life consistent with his profession of faith and biblical principle lived in the face of the pressures, temptations and attitudes which surround him.
Christians need also to remember that they are not dictating to others, but seeking to order their own lives in the light of God’s Word. As Donald Guthrie points out, ‘Modern industry is not run on Christian principles. But Christians are not absolved from the responsibility of acting on them.’
The test of a Christian’s witness is not whether people agree with his words and actions, but whether what he says and does commends the reality of his faith and testimony. The way we are viewed by people, and therefore our witness, is affected by three elements which are always important, but which are particularly relevant to the conduct of a Christian in an industrial dispute.
1, The importance of communication. Can you explain to people in simple terms consistent with God’s Word why you are taking part, or not taking part, in industrial action? Be careful how you do this, for it is easy to appear strangely apologetic. When someone says, ‘I must take this line, because of what God says,’ it can easily seem as though he is saying, ‘I would not choose this path myself, but since I am a Christian and have to do what God says, I haven’t any choice.’ This attitude is that of a reluctant follower, distancing himself from God. It betrays an empty legalism which carries no credibility whatever and spoils witness. We do not only follow God’s way because he says so, but because we believe he is right.
2. The manner of your speaking. Is your conversational tone godly and restrained? Is it generous to those who hold the view with which you disagree? Christians are not good witnesses when they are polemical, bigoted or immoderate in their demeanour or speech, nor when they are poor listeners to other views.
3. The need to avoid ‘extremism’. Are you a balanced Christian? It is no part of the Christian’s witness to draw attention to himself by a display of self-righteousness, ‘martyrdom’, or conduct designed to shock others, or by trying to outdo colleagues in the degree of passion for the cause. A Christian’s motives are as important as his conduct. He does not enter an industrial dispute in order to be a witness, or to be influential. Nor does he opt out in order to be noticed. A Christian lets God lead him, through prayerful consideration of all the issues and implications involved.
4. Finally, is an industrial dispute my responsibility, or just something I should go along with, and hope it’s over soon? God, in his providence, has his representatives in all kinds of situations. Consider Joseph, Moses, Obadiah (1 Kings 18), Nehemiah, Esther and Daniel. At times their environments, and the people around them, were hostile to their faith, but it was all in God’s plan. They were a mixture of characters, some of them with noted weaknesses, but hardly any of them were negative or passive people.
The Christian cannot be unresponsive to his circumstances, but he does need to seek God’s wisdom as to what can be said and done to please God, and fulfil his purposes, day by day. To speak and act appropriately may require courage, and almost always a blend of confidence and gentleness.
Once you have come to a view about the dispute, try to arrange to see your local union leader, and a representative of your local management, separately, to explain how you view the issues, and why you view them in that light. This could be reinforced by a follow-up letter to each of them. No Christian will come to harm through stating honest, thought-out views courteously and sincerely.
Amid the general tension and uncertainty which industrial disputes always create, a spirit of co-operation and helpfulness can go a long way also.