Christians Should Care about Collective Bargaining

By Troy Jackson

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).

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11 Comments

  1. Rob Dale
    November 5, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    It’s great to tackle a political issue in church… But to justify it with scriptures that have nothing to do with union rights? I might expect this at Stake – not here.

    The Christian Science Monitor notes that if it passes this will “replace a 28-year-old collective bargaining law with a new version that restricts the bargaining terms for the state’s nearly 400,000 public employees, prohibits striking, and gives management the final say on such topics as health insurance.”

    So let me address your concerns:

    “Through collective bargaining, police unions can give input on ways to make their job as safe as possible.”

    I’d rather hear from police officers on the beat and have their input provided than union leaders. But if SB5 goes into law, they all can still give input…

    “Custodians can lobby for safe working conditions and a reasonable workload.”

    Safe working conditions are guaranteed already by OSHA and other organizations, and SB5 would have no impact on that. Everyone else in this world determines a “reasonable workload” – why should a subset of employees be provided extra rights? If my boss gives me too much for what I feel I’m getting paid, I offer to go somewhere else. If he doesn’t change the workload or increase my pay, he has to start over.

    “Employees can flag potential environmental and safety concerns.”

    Again – safety concerns are already protected regardless of SB5’s outcome. If my employer has to pay more for healthcare, and he passes some of that increase on to me, isn’t that what is expected? Why should the citizens of Ohio pay more so that a union employee can keep his benefit level?

    I think it’s great to get political debate if that’s the goal. But it appears you are trying to say that Christians should oppose SB5 and based it on the Bible. You’ve missed the mark.

    http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2011/1105/Ohio-voters-to-decide-bargaining-rights-for-public-employees

  2. November 5, 2011 at 6:21 pm

    Malachi 3:5 is another good scripture showing God’s concern about defrauding laborers of their wages.

  3. Patti McCoin
    November 6, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    Thank you so much for this well written article. For far too long it has seemed to me that the Christian church has been absent from any debate on social issues. I have always believed that Christians should be at the forefront on issues of equality and fairness.

  4. Scott
    November 6, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    To compare James 5:4 to the state of Ohio public workers is ridiculous. Public employees in the state of Ohio are the highest paid folks in the country. Compare an IT employees salary and benefits package in the public sector to that of an IT employee in the private sector.

  5. kurt
    November 6, 2011 at 10:31 pm

    I’m an Ohio firefighter who has never been a huge union fan, but has seen first-hand the need for collective bargaining, and more importantly, binding arbitration. As Rob said, we will still be able to collectively bargain and bring up concerns, but the problem is, that’s it. It ends there. No more neutral party to come in and solve disagreements. This is why Christians should care about this issue.

    Here’s a perfect example: A number of years ago at my fire department, the city manager and fire chief decided to buy us new fire gear (what we wear to fight fire). It was the least expensive option, but still met NFPA standards. (Similar to the OSHA laws Rob mentioned) The gear resulted in 1st and 2nd degree burns to several of my co-workers because of the poor quality of the gear. Our local IAFF union brought this to the attention of our city council, city attorney, city manager, and the chief, who all stated the gear met NFPA standards and we would continue to use it. If SB5 were in effect, it would have ended there. Thankfully, the current law which includes binding arbitration allowed us to get gear that protects us better. All that to say, it took the current law to get this accomplished.

    I don’t know of a single public employee who has kept their “benefit level”. Concessions by public employees has saved state and local governments close to $1 billion over the last several years. In my opinion, the current process works, and protects public workers from public officials who would otherwise not do the right thing for their employees, like the article talks about. After all, we are not a business and don’t produce anything for our boss. We are simply an insurance policy for the residents of our city. I believe a very inexpensive one for what our residents get in return.

    By the way, under the CURRENT law, if I went on strike tomorrow, I would go to jail.

    I appreciate the author simply for making Christians think about issue 2.

  6. lindsey
    November 7, 2011 at 6:40 am

    I do not think that SB5 defrauds laborers of their wages. I think that is a complete and total misrepresentation of scripture.

  7. November 7, 2011 at 12:22 pm

    I had to agree with Rob here.

    While I agree the church should not shy away from public issues when they intersect with faith, I think this particular article is more of an example of how one might use Biblical contextomy in order to justify one’s position, which cheapens the debate.

    I could just as easily argue that PEU’s are little more than political money-laundering operations that institutionalize mediocrity, and that collective bargaining ends up creating an injustice to the students and citizens supposedly served by its beneficiaries, and also punishes superior teachers/policement/firefighters trapped in the unionized system.

    Collective bargaining for PEU’s gives legitimacy to the lie that the citizens of the state are actually represented at the bargaining table, when in reality the officials (who never have to live with the long-term results of their cronyism) are sitting on the same side of the table as the PEU’s. If that’s not injust, I don’t know what is. Other states, like Wisconsin and Indiana, have proven that limiting collective bargaining for PEU’s actually improves conditions fairly for all involved.

    Even so, I wouldn’t dream of trying to use the Bible to suggest that God would be on my side of the debate.

    In the end, trying to force Scriptures out of context to prove a political point cheapens our faith and our political debate.

  8. Dick
    November 7, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    Mr. Jackson;

    Thanks for misquoting the Bible;

    I have taken the time to correct you…

    Ephesians 4:12, 13: Talking to Pastor’s, not the people
    2 Corinthians 10:5: Talking about spiritual warfare; not labor unions
    Isaiah 58: Explanation of why the fasting pleases God; which has nothing to do with unions

    You have made a very “weak” argument; shame on you and to think you are a Co-Pastor.

    Lastly; for the people against this, let me be the first to say, “Welcome to the real world,” of people who are not in unions and do not collectively bargain and have a little portion of our pay fund our healthcare. Oh, and we don’t have a pension.

    Andy

  9. Brenda Frame
    November 12, 2011 at 10:06 am

    I am very offended by this article. When you go to the church website that Troy Jackson leads, you find they promote Sojourners, a VERY liberal social gospel site led by Jim Wallis. I’m embarrassed that Christian Standard promotes such theology. Check out this article about Jim Wallis. http://www.garynorth.com/public/department61.cfm

  10. Lance Alter
    November 22, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    Mark–I’m a church elder and have been a reader of Christian Standard for 45 years, and I’ve always loved it!
    I’m terribly upset and distressed over the Oct. 30 column by Troy Jackson on collective bargaining. I feel that the Christian Standard has crossed a line here and published something that is very much a matter of partisan politics and not appropriate for the magazine. To advocate the passage of a partisan bill, Senate bill 5 in Ohio, is to advocate for the liberal Democrat position on a partisan issue. As a Christian, I’m offended by this. Good Christians can certainly oppose this bill, and I could easily make the political arguments, but that is not the point. Why should the Standard print a divisive article that is about partisan politics, and not about faith and worship and Christian living? I hate to see the Standard become a magazine that I start to pick up with dread and annoyance, rather than with anticipation and joy.
    As a church leader and teacher, I have always been scrupulous in keeping my political views out of my church leadership and teaching and pastoring. The Standard has traditionally done that also. Senate bill 5—really? Give me a break, please!
    Best wishes–Lance

  11. mark mckinney
    January 9, 2012 at 4:14 pm

    Wow,
    I just read Troy Jackson’s article, “Christians Should Care About Collective Bargaining”. I know Mr Jackson and know he is a fine Christian man who seeks to build God’s kingdom. However, I am surprised Standard would publish what amounts to his personal opinion on a politiacal issue facing the state of Ohio. That’s what it is – his personal opinion. He uses Scripture to back up his support of unions keeping their collective baraining rights largely because his parents were school teachers. I know of current school teachers in Ohio, who are Christians, who felt the bargaining rights of unions were a big problem for the financially strapped state of Ohio. They would use Scriptural principles to support their views, too. Was there an article supporting their views?
    Should Christian Standard become a magazine that publishes opposing views on politics? I hope not. While we are free to have our personal opinions on political candidates and issues – and we all have what we feel are good reasons for them – the editors of Christian Standard should not be printing these views. I don’t believe that falls under the purpose of the magazine. These type articles are best suited for our local newspapers “Letters to the Editor”. I hate to see the Standard stoop to this level. – Mark McKinney

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