Spring 2023 : As we all know, there is a cost-of-living crisis in Britain, with inflation running at above 10 per cent. There have already been strikes in multiple industries. On March 15, for example, the following groups were involved in strike action : junior doctors, regional BBC journalists, teachers, university lecturers, civil servants and London Underground drivers.
On April 11 there began a four day strike by junior doctors leading to the cancellation of thousands of appointments and also operations.
Teachers have voted to strike for three days in late June or early July. Strike dates have already been confirmed for April 27 and May 2, and the National Education Union (NEU) plans to ballot its members on further strikes in the next academic year.
The union has rejected a £1,000 one-off payment this year, and a 4.3 per cent rise next year. Starting salaries would rise to £30,000 from September.
What should the Christian attitude be to strike action? Is it simply that Christians believe in social and economic justice for all, and so should be supportive of the withdrawal of labour as one of the legitimate means of trying to improve one’s lot, or of making ends meet?
It is the contention of this article that there needs instead to be a more serious examination of the ethical basis of strike action. Yes, the current economic climate is creating serious difficulties for many, but is the withdrawal of one’s labour an appropriate and morally sound response?
From a Biblical perspective, there is definitely a serious ethical problem associated with going on strike. What is the motivation behind such action? Usually it is to force the employer’s hand by causing maximum disruption and inconvenience both to employer and the general public. It is difficult to reconcile such a motivation with, for example, Philippians 2:4, where we read, ‘Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.’ So the Christian contemplating possible strike action would have to consider its effect upon others in society, as well as being focused on personal circumstances.
Some might argue that the motivation for strike action is honourable because it is highlighting genuine hardship. We then of course get into the difficulty of defining hardship. Surely no one can claim that the condition of workers today is remotely comparable to the dire state of the labour force in the 19th century, when the trade union movement came into being. Even compared with, say, the 1930s, we have in the 21st century a standard of living which those in that decade would have found unimaginable. This surely prompts the question: is it legitimate today to call an inability to maintain one’s standard of living ‘hardship’, such that strike action is always morally justified?
Biblical teaching clearly does not legitimise a confrontational withdrawal of labour in order to obtain higher pay. Interestingly, the issue of workers desiring higher pay is specifically referred to in the New Testament by none other than John the Baptist. He plainly told the Roman soldiers in Luke 3:14, ‘Be content with your wages.’ More generally, we read in the epistle to the Hebrews, ‘Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for (God) hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee’ (Hebrews 13:5).
The trade union movement in the 19th century arose when there was genuine abuse of workers and very poor working conditions, and it is noteworthy that the early Methodists became much involved. Meetings would be similar in format to chapel services with prayers and hymn singing.
The leader of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, George Loveless, was a Methodist preacher. He and his colleagues were sent as criminals to Australia for having dared to set up a trade union to counter the great rural poverty of the day.
With its organisation of preachers, local societies and class leaders, Methodism provided a fertile training ground for fledgling trade union leaders. For example, it was the Wesleyan Methodist, Henry Broadhurst, who founded the Stonemasons’ Union, and who in 1873 became the General Secretary of the Labour (Parliamentary) Representation League. He became a Liberal MP in 1880 and was appointed by Gladstone in 1886 as the Under-Secretary for the Home Office. Historians have described him as ‘the first working man to hold a ministerial post’.
This historical association of Methodism with trade unionism provides solid ground for affirming the moral propriety of workers associating together to make representations to employers about pay and conditions. However, strike action is a much more radical step, and that is the point which this writer seeks to emphasise. For the Christian, going to work is an obligation before God, as is doing the work honestly and conscientiously, and this therefore renders the deliberate withdrawal of labour and its resulting inconvenience and disruption to be an unethical course of action.
To have a job is a God-given privilege and blessing. Not to go to work is to spurn that blessing. The Scriptures even teach, ‘If any would not work, neither should he eat’ (2 Thessalonians 3:10). In other words, in God’s sight a claim on the basic necessities of life is forfeited if there is a deliberate resolve not to work.
Even in the context of bonded labour in the Roman Empire (not to be confused with American-style slavery), the servant was called to honour God by working faithfully in his master’s service. Thus the apostle Paul says in Ephesians 6:5, ‘Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.’
This obligation in the master-servant relationship works both ways, for we also read, ‘Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven’ (Colossians 4:1). In a modern context, this means that bosses are under an obligation before God to treat their employees fairly, including giving them reasonable levels of pay.
Bible-believing Christians today often prefer not to join trade unions, particularly if, as is usually the case, those unions are devoid of any distinctly Christian ethos and even take up distinctly anti-Christian positions on certain moral issues. The Christian firmly believes that God is watching over his material needs and that his priority must be to remain faithful and obedient. The Lord Jesus Christ said in the context of our material circumstances, ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these (material) things shall be added unto you’ (Matthew 6:33). So the believer puts his trust in the providence of God, rather than in, for example, the effectiveness of trade union activism.
In the late 1960s and 1970s interminable strikes surely contributed to the decline of Britain’s manufacturing industry, whilst foreign producers such as Japan and Germany surged ahead. So was all that ‘industrial action’ really in the ultimate interest of workers?
A major factor in the current high level of inflation is the Covid lockdowns, which were characterised by people not going to work. As Matthew Lynn wrote in the Spectator last year, ‘You don’t exactly need to be (the renowned economist) Milton Friedman to work out that when you massively increase the amount of money in circulation at the same time as … paying a few million people to stay at home for a year . . . prices start to escalate’.
Preventing healthy people from going to their work was wrong before God and contrary to His created order, but as a nation we ignored this, and so we are suffering the economic consequences now. Work is good and wholesome, and we are meant to work : in a fallen world viruses have always existed and always will. They are not a reason for millions to ignore their God-ordained obligation to work. Yes, the seriousness of the cost-of-living crisis is readily acknowledged, but from a Christian perspective, strike action, a refusal to go to work even for just a few days to force the employer’s hand, is not an honourable solution.
PASTOR PETER SIMPSON