The Beginnings of Christian Reform (30) Industrial Relations

Liberation and the law of God go together. God’s announcement to His people that He is the God who delivered them from Egypt, and then His presentation of the Ten Commandments, makes this connection between freedom and Biblical law inescapably clear. The Christian economist who takes God’s word seriously has a responsibility to begin to examine the case-law applications of God’s law to see where economic issues are involved, and what requirements God sets forth for economic relationships.

To abandon faith in the reliability of God’s law in economics is to abandon faith in what the Bible proclaims as the only basis of liberation, namely, liberation under the sovereign power of God, who sustains the universe and calls all men to conform themselves to His ethical standards in every area of life, in time and on earth.[1]          

Work-place problems have been with us since before Jacob and Laban (Gen.31:36-42). Problems themselves are not the issue, because wherever there are people, there are always problems. It’s how we deal with problems that’s the key, and we know that sin always magnifies problems between people. Furthermore, fools are drawn to disputes like ducks to water, and are likely to perpetuate and magnify strife.

This doesn’t imply pessimism about the possibilities for industrial relations, but practical reality.

My attitude to industrial relations flows from my attitude to economics. The basics of Christian Economics (according to Gary North, and based on the Biblical covenant model) are:

1. God owns everything.
2. Men owe God everything.
3. God establishes the ethical rules of ownership.
4. Profit and loss are the appropriate sanctions.
5. Covenant keepers inherit.

It is never a good idea to disparage employment of any kind. Even though people may think “I’ll go into my own business and be my own boss,” all bosses are really working for a customer, whoever that may be. Everyone works for someone, and must learn to serve that person or people.

Furthermore, nowhere in the Bible is being another’s servant or employee attributed second-rate status. When Abram had no apparent heirs, he planned to leave his inheritance to Eliezer, his servant (Gen.15:1-3). That was how important he considered Eliezer to be.

Justice and impartiality are critical aspects of industrial relations. The Bible warns us:

Shall one who hates justice rule? And will you condemn the righteous mighty One, who says to a king, ‘Worthless one,’ to nobles, ‘Wicked ones;’ Who shows no partiality to princes nor regards the rich above the poor, for they are all the work of His hands? (Job 34:17-19).

Job (who may have lived in Abraham’s day) shows us he understood the importance of being a just employer:

If I have despised the claim of my male or female slaves when they filed a complaint against me, what then could I do when God arises? And when He calls me to account, what will I answer Him? Did not He who made me in the womb make him, and the same one fashion us in the womb? … Have the men of my tent not said, ‘Who can find one who has not been satisfied with his meat?’ (Job 31:13-15, 31)

Employees are not inevitably downtrodden, exploited and oppressed individuals. This myth was perpetuated by Dickens and enlarged by Marx, who added the notion of class warfare for good measure. It’s time both myths were discarded.

Employees and employers sometimes cannot see past their noses. I have worked for callous, indifferent and unjust employers. In 1975, when I confronted one at his home one night about money he owed me, he pointed a rifle at me. (I got the money a year later). I’ve also worked alongside many lazy, devious and thieving employees. Sin isn’t limited to one group or the other.

North comments,

The socialist endorses some version of egalitarianism. He insists that the primary economic role of civil government is forcibly to redistribute income and capital toward equality. The socialist regards great disparities of wealth as morally objectionable and therefore socially objectionable…

Egalitarianism is a false ideal. The Bible not only does not recommend the use of force to redistribute wealth, it presents wealth as a legitimate success indicator.[2]

The politics of envy has detrimentally affected how people view employment. Envy is different to jealousy, because it has an evil, destructive component. Jealousy says, “I’d like to have what he has.” Envy says, “I resent what he has, and I’ll work to ensure that if I can’t have it, he can’t have it either.”

Jesus identified envy’s evil in His Parable of the Vineyard (Mat.20:1-16). Furthermore, the Bible specifically shows that the chief priests were motivated by envy in wanting to see Jesus executed, and Pilate knew it (Mat.27:18). Envy can thus be a pre-curser to murder.

Soldiers questioned John the Baptist:

“And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14).[3]

The scripture teaches us that “Do two men walk together unless they have made an agreement?” (Amos 3:3, marginal reading). Thus employer-employee agreements are essential. Australia’s highly regulated arbitration and wage-fixing system is inefficient and unbiblical, being centralised, inflexible and taxpayer funded. Only those who cannot resolve their disputes easily should have to pay for resolution.

All issues in the workplace are a matter for employees and employers to resolve among themselves, ideally without recourse to an outside authority. If employees and employers cannot relate to one another constructively in the work-place, it will ultimately cost them. They may wish to seek outside help (ie mediation), but they should be the ones responsible to pay for it, not the taxpayer. This encourages decentralisation and local responsibility, and should mean better workplace relations.

Employees can make some fundamental errors in terms of work-place conditions. They may proclaim, “We want our rights: a 38 hour week, penalty rates for shift-work and overtime, our 17.5%  leave loading, four weeks annual leave, eight paid public holidays annually, long-service leave, and 12% superannuation.” All of these things may have been aspects of the past, but there is no guarantee they will remain in the future, because business success and continued employment always hinge on continued profitability.

Employees who ignore the issue of profitability are the worst people to negotiate with employers on behalf of others. Why? Because in their ignorance and folly, they can drive a workplace to the wall. Without consistent profitability, any workplace is finished.

If companies around the world don’t have the workplace luxuries we presently enjoy in Australia, they may be at an advantage when competing against us. This requires great wisdom and flexibility on the part of employees to recognise when the writing is on the wall, and to act accordingly.

A profitable company is more likely to pass on employment longevity. The workplace can be one of unity and harmony, without fear and intimidation. But always, “keeping away from strife is an honour for a man, but any fool will quarrel” (Prov.20:3). Employees and employers have a vested interest in working out matters between them, and ensuring profitability. In adverse circumstances, this may require taking cuts in pay and conditions.

Employees may negotiate as individuals, or through another chosen person or institution of their choice. This makes way for the role of the private mediator, who can come between employers and employees and assist them to resolve differences. The role of a mediator is an important and a legitimate one, Biblically. (See Job 9:33; I Tim.2:5; Heb.9:15).

Conclusion:                                                                                                                    Employees and employers have a vested interest in sorting out differences amicably. This requires wisdom and flexibility, along with a commitment to dealing ethically.

Sin always muddies the waters in relationships, compounding problems between people. Successful workplace relations requires respect from employers and employees towards one another, as they work together towards the mutual goals of workplace justice and company profitability.

[1] Gary North, “The Sinai Strategy,” 1986, p.23-24.

[2] Gary North, “Wisdom and Dominion,” 2012, p.152.

[3] In 1975 I worked briefly for a road construction company driving tractors, on $14/day. Thinking this rate was somewhat low, I spoke about this to a Christian friend, who advised me (paraphrasing John the Baptist) to “be content with your wages.” But I discovered that the Award rate for this job was $22/day, and when I challenged the management about this, they agreed to pay me the Award.