Tag Archives: labour unions

Pastoral Q & A — Labour Unions

I’m starting a new feature here where I’m answering questions from members of my church about various issues.  Since many of these questions are of general interest, I figured I would share the answers here.

Today’s question is about a Christian perspective on labour unions.  How should we regard them?  Can a Christian be a member of a labour union?

I’ve tackled this question before from within the Canadian context (see here).  Having done some research, I’ve noticed that Australia has some significant differences.  My answer in this post is based on the Australian context.

Historically, many Reformed people have objected to union membership on several grounds.  One of the main grounds was the unconditional oath of allegiance that labour unions required.  It used to be that if you were a member of a union you were required to promise that you would put the union above everything else, including God and your biblical convictions.  Moreover, many workplaces were “closed shops,” which meant that if you worked there you were compelled to join the union and pay the associated dues.  This is no longer the case in Australia.  Union membership is voluntary, and no one can be compelled to anything.  For example, if you don’t join a particular union associated with a workplace, neither the union nor the employer can make your life difficult (at least not legally).  If the union starts an industrial action or strike, even if you are a union member, you cannot be forced to participate.  More details can be found here.  So the situation has changed on that front.

Nevertheless, the existence of labour unions is owing to an adversarial model of industrial relations.  It’s an unbiblical notion of necessary conflict between labour and management.  Depending on their leadership and policies, some labour unions might be more militant than others.  In other scenarios, workers in a given situation might be facing an exploitative employer and a labour union could justly and fairly promote their interests.  When faced with the question, a Christian needs to look at the history of a particular union’s dealings with management and any relevant legislation as well.  It’s also worth asking whether that union would stand behind you as a Christian if you got into trouble in the workplace because of your beliefs.  The answer to that question would give you a clear indication of whether you have a place in such an organization.

Finally, a Christian also has to research the particular causes that union supports.  Here in Australia, I can think of at least one union that is openly affiliated with the Labor Party and supports its policies (including on abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, etc.).  Since their historic foundational principles are based on socialist/Marxist ideology, unions do tend to lean to the left politically speaking.  Christians should therefore be aware of whether or not their union dues are going to be supporting causes that are ethically problematic.

So can a Christian be a member of a labour union?  It depends on the union.  In some instances, a Christian will conclude that it’s possible, in others that it’s impossible.  You need to do your research and find out who you’re dealing with.  At the end of the day we can be thankful that we live in a country where we’re never compelled to make a choice contrary to our conscience.

What About Labour Unions?

In our Canadian Reformed heritage there is a long history of opposition to labour unions.  To tell the truth, this opposition has not always been consistent across the board.  In some churches, church discipline was implemented with members who belonged to labour unions.  In other churches, consistory members have not only belonged to labour unions, but have even held leadership positions in them.  In what follows, I would like to briefly outline some important elements to consider in our thinking about this subject.  There is a lot more that could be said, but in the interests of brevity I will focus on these two or three elements.

Labour unions exist to represent the interests of workers.  They will stand up for their brothers and sisters against management.  The typical labour union exists with the premise of an adversarial relationship between management and labour.  This model derives from communist ideology where such conflict is inevitable and even desirable.  As Christians, we must find such a model detestable, since God wills for us to be show love, honour, and faithfulness to those over us (including employers) and to be patient with their weaknesses and shortcomings (see 1 Peter 2:18).

Typically labour unions also require their members to swear or sign oaths of unconditional allegiance.  Members promise to put the interests of the union above and before everyone and everything else.  Thus, if the union votes to go on strike, the members are obligated to strike.  Christians cannot in good conscience swear such oaths.  They cannot vow to put the interests of the union above their commitment to God.  Nor can they promise to use techniques of intimidation and confrontation should the union so decide.  This conflicts with our commitment to live in peace, love, and harmony with our neighbours – including our employers (see Romans 12:18 and Hebrews 12:14).

Many Canadian Reformed Church members have worked in unionized environments, but have opted out of the labour union.  In some instances, this required some kind of adjudication at a provincial labour board.  Office bearers are always willing and ready to help church members prepare for such investigations, should the need arise.  Opting out of the union usually will require union fees be directed elsewhere to a mutually agreed upon charity.

Finally, the above applies generally to labour unions in Canada.  There may be exceptions and thus we cannot absolutely forbid membership in labour unions.  However, believers in unionized workplaces have a personal responsibility to familiarize themselves with the collective agreement of the union, as well as membership oaths and requirements.  You may also want to investigate the sorts of social and political causes that the union in question supports through the membership dues.  Considering those factors in most instances will lead a conscientious believer to conclude that union membership is incompatible with faith in Christ.

For further reading:  see chapter 8 of W. Pouwelse, A Spiritual House (Winnipeg: Premier, 1986).