If you look on the Internet for “Christadelphian” and “Trade Unions”, you will find many statements like “Christadelphians do not join such associations”. Is this true? Ought it to be true?
There has been much written in our community on whether (or in general, whether not) to join a trade union.1 The principle arguments adduced against joining such organizations are:
• Be content with your wages, based primarily on such Biblical principles as: the getting of gain and success is not a mark of divine favor nor evidence of godliness. On the contrary, “godliness with contentment is great gain” (1Tim 6:6).
• “Wherefore come out from among them and be ye separate” (2Cor 6:17): this is taken to imply we cannot associate with our fellow workers in any collective activities without violating the commandment to separate ourselves from worldly pursuit.
• The belief that unions exist primarily to seek increased wages, and do so largely by using the weapon of a strike.
• Unions have become so politicized that their focus has shifted from negotiating wages and benefits to influencing governments.
It must also be pointed out that, despite the strong advice often given, there is not unanimity on the subject. For example, Bro. Alan Hayward, who by virtue of his employment was a member of the British Civil Service Union, wrote:
“There has always been an agreed Christadelphian position about military service, but there has never been any comparable agreement about trade union activities. The issue has generally been regarded in the brotherhood as one where there should be freedom of individual conscience. This has to be so, because there is no unambiguous Scripture teaching on the subject. Everything depends on inference, and different people come to different conclusions from the same basic facts.”2
Present day situation
Most that have written on the subject were not members of Trade Unions, and very few have written from a North American perspective. No-one doubts our opposition to military service: but when it comes to unions, we must also remember the command of Paul “… this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat” (2Thess 3:10). We have a command to provide for ourselves and our family as best we can. This leads into a whole different area, that of “suitable” professions for a disciple, but in reality many avenues of employment require membership of some sort of union. For example, teachers, and many government employees, including postal workers, are required to join a union. And although not a union in the normal sense, most health care professionals are required to be licensed to practice their profession, with the entry to the profession controlled and what they can do specified. Some object to joining a union, because their dues might subsidize actions they disagree with, but at least in North America this is not true.3
In these controls, professions reflect the practices of the first century, for Paul was a tentmaker, and thus almost certainly a member of the tentmaker’s guild. He was thus enabled to obtain work wherever he travelled, and indeed spread the gospel among his fellow tradespeople (think Aquila and Priscilla: Acts 18:1-3). This guild controlled the way its members operated, much the same way professional associations operate, and modern trade unions operate (with the exception of the ability of some modern trade unions to strike.)
As to the command to “be ye separate”, the context is clearly one of idol worship. We cannot share the goals of those not of the Truth, whether it is the pursuit of false religion or materialism. Our command is to maintain our separate goals — but not to “go out of the world” and decline to associate with the idolaters of this world (1Cor 5:9-10). The balance between these two recommendations is always a dilemma, but we cannot fulfill it by becoming completely separate, or how can we spread the gospel?
Union membership varies widely in North America. In some areas, it is very difficult to obtain gainful employment without union membership, so in those areas such membership is quite common and unremarked among Christadelphians. In other areas, such as the “right to work” states in the USA, such membership is almost unknown. If you talk to Christadelphians who are Union Members, they recognize the problems that result: they themselves remain uninvolved in all union activities, and regard the dues as simply the cost of obtaining a decent livelihood. In North America, union strikes are now rare, and becoming rarer, particularly in the USA. Recent statistics show days lost to strikes in the USA are less than 0.005% of days worked, and in Canada, with a much more unionized workforce, around 0.02%. Even in the “militant” Detroit area, it is quite possible to go a whole working career in a union without any involvement in a strike. Thus the dilemma of what to do if a strike occurs is quite rare, but whether to cross the picket line depends on the situation. Some Christadelphians so involved have decided to make a stand and cross the picket line:4 others have made their opposition to striking clear, refused to picket (thereby forfeiting strike pay), but have chosen not to incite violence by crossing the picket line. One experience I have of this area is of one who, while not a Christadelphian, was a quietly but deeply convinced Christian, who shared with us many of our attitudes to politics and trade unions. An engineer, he was forced to pay union dues, but did so while making clear he only did so under compulsion. His opinions were well known and respected, and he always crossed the picket line — but without any comments by strikers or subsequent repercussions. If any union situation, both our convictions and our reasons for them should be made clear well before any talk of a strike or other action takes place.
I find it hard to equate our objection to military service to Trade Union membership. In the former we have to declare allegiance to a power which has goals that differ from those of a disciple: in the latter, in order to obtain employment, we have to join a group that is involved in the same occupation, and negotiates for wages and benefits on behalf of the group. There is no doubt that such unions have eliminated many of the management abuses that were common in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. It is arguable that during the period of 1970-1990 the pendulum might have swung in favor of the labor unions, but certainly the situation these days is that the power of the unions has greatly decreased. In my own experience, the chance of being involved in an industrial dispute because of being a union member is very small, and legislative remedies are available for those uncomfortable with having their union dues supporting dubious activities. Those in a trade union need be no more involved with their fellow workers than if a union is not present.
If we counsel all Christadelphians to avoid union membership, whatever the circumstances, in many circumstances we are depriving members of any realistic prospect of supporting their families. However, we need to counsel those considering entering heavily unionized professions of the dangers. Being a part, even a reluctant part, of the sort of violent activities that do occur is not part of being a disciple of Christ.
Like many modern aspects of being a disciple of Christ, the question of trade unions has no simple answer. To say that Christadelphians do not join trade unions is incorrect: but to say that those joining do so with reluctance, and will not take part in the organization or union elections, is also correct.
It is a matter of individual conscience in our community, and it always has been.
Peter Hemingray (Royal Oak, MI)