Effective immediately: Jesus no longer works here
Too often, churches in Canada turn a blind eye to the abuse of power in workplaces.
In the 1990s, Kellogg Company produced a series of commercials featuring their iconic mascot, Tony the Tiger. The plot of these commercials typically revolved around a kid being bullied. To help the young person overcome their adversaries, Tony the Tiger offers some Frosted Flakes cereal. Through the power of the sugar-coated cereal, the child and Tony the Tiger are able to beat the bullies in an over-the-top sports montage and the commercial ends with the Kellogg’s mascot saying his famous catchphrase “They’re gr-r-reat!”
While Tony the Tiger has been helping children stand up to fictitious bullies since the 1990s, the cereal company won’t show the 2021 Kellogg’s strikes on their Saturday morning cartoon. The wave of strikes across the United States in October of 2021 over Kelloggs’ employers not treating workers “gr-r-reat” should push us to ask what a Christian approach to labour unions and strikes looks like.
The CRC’s cautious position
The Christian Reformed Church (CRC) has a complicated relationship with labour unions. Since 1914, the denomination has discussed the topic of organized labour five times at Synod, each time coming to the conclusion that joining labour unions is permissible but must be done with extreme caution. The CRC’s official stance on organized labour is a cautious one, stating: “Church membership and membership in a labour union are compatible as long as the union does not warrant or champion sin in its regular activities.” While the CRC may not openly condemn workers organizing, in my church experience I have found that many in the pews think quite negatively about labour unions.
Part of the reason Christian Reformed members may be so apprehensive about unionization is because of the Calvinist Work Ethic. Due to Calvinists’ theology of vocation, we tend to be industrious employees who “work heartily, as for the Lord.” However, because of our tradition’s over-emphasis on individual grit being the path to worldy success and a blindness to the role of privilege in certain groups’ success, we have often not thought critically enough about our labour relations practices.
Questionable ethics and lackluster efforts
Many Christian organizations – including some the CRC played a role in establishing – have adopted practices which do not demonstrate the inherent dignity of labourers. Numerous American, Christian not-for-profits claim to be pro-life, yet only offer the minimum 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave required by law. With recent cuts to faculty at our Christian Reformed universities we have seen faculty who have faithfully taught for decades terminated because they were easy targets in a system that favours legacy teachers at the top of the pay scale. While Christian Reformed congregations have made great strides before the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to ensure the coffee they serve after church is Fair Trade, to what extent have we made ethical purchasing decisions for cereal, ensuring that we buy cereal prepared by organized labour workers who are able to negotiate a just wage?
Unlike the Christian Reformed Church’s permissive perspective on Labour Unions, our Roman Catholic brethren have developed a more robust social thought related to labour. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states, “The Magisterium recognizes the fundamental role played by labour unions, whose existence is connected with the right to form associations or unions to defend the vital interests of workers employed in the various professions.” I think those of us in the Reformed and Evangelical tradition have an opportunity to learn much from sisters and brothers in the Roman Catholic Church who have developed a robust Social Teaching, which we can incorporate into our political theology.
Preferential Option for the Poor
One of the most prevalent elements of Catholic Social Teaching that can inform our perspective on labour relations is the Preferential Option for the Poor. This Catholic doctrine maintains that there is a trend throughout scripture in which God tends to stand with those without power in society rather than the individuals with power. The Reformed tradition’s own Belhar Confession summarizes the Preferential Option for the Poor succinctly: “God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged.”
The biblical notion of the preference for the poor needs to be better reflected in our labour practises. Workers owe their employers honour in the form of providing honest days of work for a fair wage. However, too often Christians in the workplace defer too much authority to management. We show deference to those in power and do not stand up for the rights of those who are the most vulnerable in the workplace. Too often when sexual abuse occurs in Christian organizations, we presume that the individual with the power – ordinarily the abuser – is innocent while the burden of proof falls almost entirely on the victim.
Seeking fair process
Labour Unions, as a vehicle for social justice, reflect the Preferential Option for the Poor by ensuring that employees cannot be arbitrarily disciplined or terminated. In Ontario it is fully in the provisions of the employer to terminate an employee simply for being disliked. However, Labour Unions turn the power imbalance around and require that the employer use progressive discipline to provide the employee with the opportunity to correct their actions. Thus Labour Unions turn workplaces from benevolent dictatorships into a community where Management and Unions act as partners to determine fair process.
While unions, like all parts of human cultures, are subject to the Fall, I have little doubt that during times of strike Christ would not sit at the Board Room table with management trying to plot how to decrease wages, reduce pensions and eliminate benefits to increase the profits of shareholders. Christ would be standing in solidarity at the picket line singing that old Union anthem, Solidarity Forever.