Christians Should Care about Collective Bargaining
Church leaders have taught us to be very cautious addressing political issues. We have heard about the errors of Constantine, who wedded Christianity and the Roman Empire. We are also justly concerned about the co-opting of the church by politicians and political parties.
Over the past few years, however, I’ve been alarmed by the fallout of congregations attempting to completely avoid political discussions. My concern is rooted in the task of church leadership as described by Paul, “to equip his people for works of service” and to help the church to “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12, 13). This means, as Paul states in 2 Corinthians 10:5, to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
But who is shaping the Christian mind when it comes to the big issues, the political debates, and most pressing challenges of our day? Far too often, the answer would be Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck, or Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, and Ed Schultz.
Let’s be real honest here. Many people who attend our churches every Sunday spend more time watching Fox News or MSNBC and listening to talk radio in a given day than they spend reading the Bible in an entire week (I actually suspect some watch and listen more in a day than they spend reading Scripture in an entire month!)
But would we prefer to have Jesus, the head of the church, shaping and informing hearts and minds rather than the talking heads on TV and radio?
We need to push for debate and dialogue on the biggest challenges of the day to be rooted in Jesus and the Word of God. While this may not mean we all will agree on all issues, it does mean we will strive to no longer be conformed to the pattern of this world, but instead be transformed by the renewing of our minds.
It is in the spirit of pursuing a biblical approach that I will address some of the political controversy arising from our nation’s financial meltdown and the resulting massive revenue and debt crisis.
Few issues have been as controversial over the past few years as those related to our economic collapse. These are tough economic times following the foreclosure crisis and the Wall Street meltdown of 2008. When facing difficulties, we like to find someone to blame for our situation. Certainly Bernie Madoff has become one of the targets, along with many bank executives who peddled bad loans. And, of course, some blame politicians for policies they believe either caused or exacerbated the situation.
None can deny that as a result of this collapse, tax revenues are down across the board, while military spending and stimulus spending at the federal level are up. One result has been large deficits and debt at the national, state, and local levels.
Teachers to Blame?
Earlier this year, I turned on a local radio show as I drove to work and heard the talk show host blame a new and rather surprising group for our economic downturn—public school teachers. Apparently teachers, with their pay and benefits, are bankrupting our cities, counties, state, and nation, or so I was told.
I am the son of two public school teachers, each of whom taught for more than three decades. In addition to a full day of teaching, my father regularly spent an extra 10 or more hours a week coaching track, cross country, and basketball, often for what amounted to just a few dollars an hour. My mother led foreign language organizations and spent many late nights grading papers. They both worked very hard to make sure their students learned and to help them succeed.
And based on the very modest lifestyle we lived when I was a child, I have a hard time believing public school teachers, or public employees for that matter, are the cause of the financial crises facing our states.
In my home state of Ohio, the governor has signed a law called Senate Bill 5, which strips collective bargaining rights from public employees in the state. The rationale is that the financial crisis we face can primarily be attributed to unions and their contracts, which are more complicated and costly because unions have a seat at the table.
In Ohio, a strong case can be made for working to increase revenues while also renegotiating contracts and benefits for public employees. The decision to strip collective bargaining rights, however, is a different question. Collective bargaining is a way workers gain a voice in shaping their work environment and conditions. Through collective bargaining, police unions can give input on ways to make their job as safe as possible. Custodians can lobby for safe working conditions and a reasonable workload. Employees can flag potential environmental and safety concerns.
Workers Without a Voice
And one clear theme in Scripture is that workers without a voice are vulnerable to exploitation. In the book of Exodus, prior to Moses’ arrival, the Hebrews did not have a voice in their situation, and they faced brutal slavery.
In Isaiah 58, the people of Israel are called to account for fasting and praying while mistreating their workers. In James 5:4, the author warns wealthy Christians: “Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.”
Unions help represent workers by mitigating vulnerability to mistreatment and exploitation. Collective bargaining, in particular, assures that employees have their perspective articulated consistently to their employers.
And again, Scripture highlights the significance of voice. At the beginning of Genesis, we learn that God acted by speaking, and through God’s words, creation came into being. One of the ways Adam reflects that he is created in the image of God is through speech, and particularly through the power of words in naming all the animals in Genesis 2. Language becomes a way that human beings help influence their surroundings.
During the Exodus, Moses (with a little help from Aaron!) becomes the voice who brings the concerns and demands of the Hebrew slaves to Pharaoh, collectively bargaining in a sense to call for the deliverance of God’s people from bondage. In Daniel, the protagonist speaks out by challenging the leaders of Babylon to alter the diet of the Hebrews. His voice helps alter their work situation in exile.
Debates Rooted in Scripture
I appreciate that there are biblically rooted positions regarding debts and deficits that prompt some to take a different position. I also recognize that, like any institution or organization in a fallen world, unions are far from perfect. I acknowledge that we as followers of Jesus can have legitimate disagreements about how best to engage and respond to public employee unions.
And I relish the thought of debates about public policy that are rooted in Scripture, faith, and God-given human dignity rather than political ideology.
For me, given the vulnerability of workers to exploitation in the workplace, and the important God-given dignity found in speaking into and helping to shape our work environments, I’m committed to working to overturn Senate Bill 5 in the state of Ohio this year.
Troy Jackson is co-pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, and author of Becoming King (The University Press of Kentucky, 2008).