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To strike or not to strike

Ross Hendry

Every day this month seems to bring news of further industrial action, or strikes, by one group of workers or another. This week saw the largest walkout of nursing staff since the foundation of the NHS. They joined workers in the rail industry, Ambulance drivers, driving instructors, highways workers, border force staff, royal mail workers and civil servants in what is the largest wave of industrial action for over two decades.

The likelihood is that none of the disputes are going to be resolved soon, with employers and unions at loggerheads, and other professions may join the current wave of strikes in the New Year.

What should be our response as Christians to these disputes? Should we support workers or employers? Should Christians strike?

Before sharing a personal view I should disclose a potential conflict of interest.

For six years I worked for a trade union, Unison. I did so, in part, because I believed passionately in the right of workers to strike, in the importance of unions protecting the rights of vulnerable workers, and the need to hold employers to account for treating their workforce with justice and fairness. But over that time I also became disillusioned with many in the union movement who simply saw employers as adversaries, who denied the need for progress and productivity, and who saw industrial relations as a struggle for power.

Years later I retain a belief in both these positions and grapple with what God’s Word does and does not say in guiding my opinion on current disputes.

Preaching on Colossians 3:22-4:1 in 1973 John Stott was perhaps the first ‘modern’ evangelical leader who directly tried to help those like me address the issue of industrial relations exegetically.

In his sermon, Stott sets out an incredibly helpful framework whereby employees and employers have reciprocal duties. Employees have a duty to provide good, honest productive work, and employers to provide them with just wages and fair conditions. One party is not providing charity to the other but fulfilling their own duties.

Contrary to how most industrial relations operate today, both parties should concentrate on their own duties and not their own rights. In this way both sides of the ‘work contract’ should learn to forget their own rights, and rather consider what they can give and how to serve and fulfill the other’s rights.

Finally, the passage in Colossians affirms that both employers and employees are under God’s authority. There is no escaping our heavenly Master’s eye when it comes to productivity, or judgement for how we treat others. In this way, the Christian witness revolutionises industrial relations.

This framework is very helpful but still leaves me with many questions. Are the duties Stott draws out to be unilaterally applied by Christians whether others agree and reciprocate or not? Are there times when the call to ‘obey masters’ is overridden by the call for justice, just like the call to obey authorities?

How do the principles of productivity apply to public services? What consideration should be given to the collateral damage strikes have on lives and the economy?

What seems clear to me is that simplifying complex, fallen relationships into a binary choice is fraught with dangers. Therefore, having led a work and faith programme for almost a decade, been an employee in some way for over 30 years and an employer for 9 I find the following questions helpful guides in discerning the validity of different disputes, or the case for action and the tactics that should be followed.

1. Does this action facilitate or impede our calling to work (for the Lord) in the long as well as the short term?

Often workers short-term gains can come at a greater cost to the sustainability of work or the organisation an employee is working for. Equally a ‘harsh’ settlement for workers may lead them into long term need. We should seek sustainably good work.

2. What is the desired goal and who is served by it?

As in many areas of life we can say our actions are on behalf of others while hiding very self-serving needs that are our real idols. Idols can often masquerade behind the mask of altruism of serving others, and God’s word is clear that our duty is other’s rights not our own.

3. How does my action demonstrate a love for my neighbour above of love for myself?

Our work must be an expression of God’s command to love our neighbour and must sustain and develop God’s creation. Will action demonstrate this imperative or not?

4. Who is harmed and who is influenced by my actions?

Love of neighbour leads us to question who is harmed, hindered or influenced by industrial action? If a dispute is with an employer, is it the employer who is primarily impacted and influenced by actions taken? If not, is it appropriate action?

5. Am I acting or supporting actions simply to fit in?

Often there is huge pressure to conform to the prevailing attitude of our tribe – whether a Government minister, union member or any other group. Christians are called to be courageous in their distinctiveness and never give in to peer pressure.

6. Will these actions cause me or others to sin?

Industrial conflict should never cause us to sin or support sinful acts. The ends never justify the means.

7. How is God honoured though these this actions?

For the Christian our primary concern must always be God’s glory, and faithfulness to his Word. This may mean we stand alone, apart from friends and colleagues, but also may lead us to surprising compromises and radical actions.

These seven questions do not necessarily lead me to answers that are neat and absolute, but they do help me discern the motivations, goals and impact of strike action. They highlight the legitimacy of some causes and the illegitimacy of others. They help me understand and better empathise with both sides of a dispute and question my own assumptions.

God’s word is both clear that we are called to work, and that we are to be treated fairly and justly. But we live in a fallen world where the motivation and actions of employers and employees alike are filled with sinful desires and motives.

As I look on the wide range of current disputes, I see a mixture of justice and injustice and I pray for Christians to cut through the noise and to act as peacemakers.

These voices may be drowned out in the short term, but long-term resolutions can only be achieved when sides give up their own claims and seek the welfare of others. When all sides, whether knowingly or not, follow God’s good ways.

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