As British Airways braces itself for a second consecutive weekend of strikes by cabin crew, many would be passengers prepare to have their travel plans disrupted. When trade unions vote to strike, opinions tend to flow freely and emotions are usually raw, as managers, the labour force and customers express their differing points of view. It’s not just an issue effecting air travel; the 2009 postal strikes are still fresh in our memories and a national rail strike is looming.
This FNT article makes no attempt to comment on the specific examples of recent, current or future industrial action. Instead it provides two points of caution and two points for discussion that will hopefully equip you as the subject of striking trade unions is raised this weekend.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing
The world of trade unions, labour relationships and industrial action is complicated. The fields of labour economics and labour organisation are mind-boggling. Even for the simplest of disputes it can be difficult to grasp both sides of the argument; however labour disputes are usually far from simple. Therefore, we must be careful when passing judgement on things we know little about.
Bombarded by Bible verses
It can be all too tempting to ‘throw’ individual Bible verses at situations like this. Matthew 5.5,41, Ephesians 6.5 and Luke 10.7 all spring to mind. These verses may have something useful to say about industrial action, however, if not handled with care it’s all too easy for verses to be taken out of context and used to support our argument. Instead, we should take the Bible as a whole, and apply the breadth of its message to the individual situations we are confronted with. Selecting a few individual Bible verses may help us address some of the surface issues, taking the Bible as a whole will help us get to the heart of the issue.
The decision to strike is rarely taken lightly and only used as a last resort as by striking the union’s ‘trump card’ is being played. However, when a trade union does decide to strike it is has the effect of forcing management into a corner. Whether or not management is right or wrong on a particular issue, questions have to be raised regarding whether or not ‘forcing someone into a corner’ is the most effective approach for dealing with conflict. As Christians, we certainly have to ponder whether it is a Christ-like response to a disagreement. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5.9). How could we be effective peacemakers in the midst of industrial action?
Fighting for justice
Trade unions have a strong heritage of ensuring that workers are paid fair wages and get to work in safe conditions. When unions are functioning at their best they provide the opportunity for the ‘weak’ workers to join together to ensure that the ‘strong’ managers have to listen to, and act on, their concerns. The idea of fighting for justice for the weak is an extremely biblical idea. Amongst the concern that some trade unions are being as greedy as the managers they were established to confront, it is vitally important that the voiceless are able to join together so their voice is heard.
How would Jesus respond in a strike situation? Would he join or cross the picket line? We can speculate, but we just don’t know. However, I’m confident that he would act wisely, seek peace and proactively fight for justice. That may or may not involve taking sides; that would depend on the specific nature of the dispute.
Phil Green, Public Theology Research Assistant
The Irresistible Revolution: On Friday 21st May, Shane Claiborne will be speaking at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster for an event hosted by Mission Year, in partnership with Pentecost Festival. Shane will be supported by singer/songwriter Nicki Rogers and other guests. Doors will open at 7:30pm. Tickets cost £10.50 and can be purchased from www.pentecostfestival.co.uk/tickets. For further details go to www.pentecostfestival.co.uk/shaneclaiborne