It looks like we are about to embark on a turbulent time for public sector workers. Strikes on our railways over the last few weeks and months, post office workers, waste operators all striking and more ballots happening every week.
Every church and every congregation in Scotland is likely to have someone who is facing the decision on whether to withdraw their labour or cross a picket line and continue to work.
When I looked at doing a Blog on this topic I had trouble finding anything current on this topic, most articles and writing was from the early 90’s, which I suppose reflects what has been a relatively calm time in worker relations in the country. Looking back to my childhood it was rather different, with miners strikes and teachers strikes commonplace. I remember being really annoyed that my sisters teacher was on strike but mine wasn’t so I had to go to school but she got the day off! Ultimate injustice as a child.
So should Christians go on strike, should Christians cross a picket line, and where should we look to for guidance on this topic? How as church leaders do you support someone in your congregation who is facing this decision and what biblical guidance can you suggest?
Looking at the literature available on this topic most seem to settle in the middle position of – Yes, withdrawal of labour is justified in some circumstances. There are others who use the Bible to say that it is never right that we should “give to Caesar what is Caesars” and interpret that in very strict ways, but most articles look at what is appropriate terms for going on strike.
One of the most useful pieces I found was from the Industrial Christian Fellowship: http://www.icf-online.org/professions/strike.pdf this goes through a series of ‘things to think about’ that I found really helpful when considering this question, it was also the most up to date writings that I could find, although still over 10 years old. I will summarise below, adding in some thoughts of my own as we go.
One of the first big questions is how often as churches do we discuss topics like this? It is quite easy to remember in our prayers of intercession events happening in Ukraine, or famine in Africa, but how often do we pray for those struggling with decisions around industrial action in the UK??? Do churches pick the easy things to talk about, or pray about, or should we be more willing to tackle the actual issues that people are facing. We are often so scared about coming across as “too political” that we fail to talk about the issues that people are actually struggling with in their day to day lives.
There are no easy answers to this question, on whether Christians should strike, or cross picket lines. It is a complex topic, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying or shy away from it. If we are to be salt and light in our society then we should have things to say about these topics, and guidance to give those church goers who are thinking about this.
The article from the Industrial Christian Fellowship sets out some really helpful considerations when coming to a decision on this:
Individuals should be able to withdraw their labour in appropriate circumstance is the underlying principle that few would disagree with. This has to be balanced with the principle that we should also be free to work unhindered and not coerced into withdrawing our labour. But it doesn’t start there, Christians should also be fully engaged in working to improve standards in working life, industrial relations and creating an environment where workers rights are listened to, acknowledged and valued. So whether you are “in management” or “a worker” you have a responsibility to ensure that standards are of the highest possible quality and everyone is valued equally. Christians should be outspoken on this and be salt and light on this issue.
The motivation behind strike action is incredibly important. So if striking is acceptable in certain circumstance, then what are those circumstances?
Striking over conditions is different from striking over pay, not saying one is right and one is wrong, but they are different and should be viewed as different. An article from the Evangelical Times in 1995 looks at this question and asks is it ever right to break your employment contract? Romans 13 v 7 is clear that we should pay everyone what we owe to them, including work, is breaking your contract a denial of the Christian value in Matt 5 v 37 that our yes should be yes. Or can breaking your contract be justified if circumstances around you change – for example the cost of living crisis.
This is probably the hardest question to answer of those posed, and it will be up the individual to decide what their motivation is, whether that breaks a contract and whether that break is justified, but just because it is a hard question doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be asking it in our churches and places of worship.
Impact of my Actions
This is tough one. With nurses about to ballot on whether to strike, this issue comes to the fore, but could easily also be applied to care workers, waste operators and others in the public sector.
In a Christian Medical Fellowship article on the topic they highlight three key themes that should be considered: Compassion, Justice and Grace. (again an older article from 1999) https://www.cmf.org.uk/resources/publications/content/?context=article&id=950
This article concludes that given the responsibility of health workers and the Christian calling that they should not go a strike. However it goes on to say that other industrial action – working to rule for example – should be an option open to Christian health workers and should be considered.
It also asks the question that if doctors/nurses strike because current work practices are endangering patients (working too long hours for example) then this may be viewed as justified in the long term.
But what about other public sector caring professions such as care workers. It is incredibly difficult to see how as a Christian you can balance the two sides of this one, is it possible to strike without causing harm or putting the burden, that you have committed to, onto someone else. This is clearly something that many in our churches will be wrestling with over the coming weeks and months and our churches should be supporting them and helping them come to these tough decisions.
Have all other options been considered, tried and discounted before taking the final step of strike action?
Strikes should always be the last resort and this brings us back to the start of this article about asking where the Christian voices are in employment relations in this country. Are we at the forefront of talking about and being involved in discussions in our work places about worker conditions and pay?
Where do my Responsibilities Lie?
Our responsibilities lie in four key areas: our employer, fellow employees, our family and dependents and God. All of these need to be considered and weighed when coming to a decision on whether to take, or not take, industrial action.
Manipulation (is there another agenda at work)
Which again brings us back to our original point in terms of where are Christians in industrial relations?
Some disputes are planned to bring additional disruption or on significant days, a recent rail strike at the start of the Commonwealth Games would be an example of this, or a postal strike the weekend before the Conservative leadership ballot closes when many might be posting their votes.
Is this a justified course of action? As Christians should we looking to take strike action when it has the least impact, or the most? Again complex questions that should be considered by those thinking about striking.
Forgiveness and Grace
This mirrors the article by the CMF when looking at the core principles that we should all consider as part of our working lives. What place does “turn the other cheek” play in industrial relations, if we are wronged in the workplace on issues of pay or conditions what should our reaction be? But if the situation that we are facing at work is wrong or unjust it is surely right to take a stand against that?
This principle also extends to our behaviour when striking or when deciding not to strike. As Christians we should always exhibit grace in our actions and speech, so anyone standing on a picket line (or crossing one) hurling abuse or shouting slogans should consider how that action should be viewed by others (and Jesus of course) and what witness that displays.
Is there an opportunity for reconciliation
This is the final point to consider when thinking about whether Christians should be taking, or not taking, industrial action. And once again we come back to the main question of where are Christians at the top of industrial relations in our country?
Relationships should be key, and we should always strive to have good and positive relationships with those around us, we should be salt and light in our workplaces and our colleagues should see something different in the way we are at work. God has called us to be reconcilers and healing should always be at the heart of everything that we do.
The decision to strike or not strike is always going to be a personal one, based on individual circumstances and situations. The Bible doesn’t give explicit guidance on this issue but is clear about being honest and faithful in our working lives. We are entering a very turbulent time when it comes to industrial relations in our country and most commentators agree that we are going to see many more strikes and protests over the winter in our public sector. Churches have a key role to play in our communities and should be an important voice in these debates and discussions. We have to be Christi centred, armed with the information and winsome advice for those who we meet who are struggling with these issues.