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  • Writer's picturePaul Coulter

Should Christians strike?

Recent headlines in the UK have been dominated by strike action across multiple sectors. Transport workers, barristers, postal workers, nurses, refuse workers and teachers are among those who have either engaged in industrial action or debated it in the second half of 2022. Every day the news reports the likelihood of widespread disruption for commuters and consumers. In a time of pressures on the cost of living from high inflation and energy price hikes, public opinion about the strikes is mixed. On one hand, there is considerable sympathy for workers whose pay is not rising with inflation, but, on the other, some argue that those who will suffer from strikes are the ordinary people and that it is unreasonable to expect high pay increases amidst economic recession.

This article does not seek to comment on whether current strikes are legitimate. Rather, it is intended to help Christians who are considering participating in a strike to decide if and when it is right for a Christian to strike.

The relationship between strikes and Christians is complex. The earliest trade unions were formed in the 1700s in England, a response to the industrialisation of society and the injustices against workers that accompanied it in many places. One of the most famous early instances of industrial action facilitated by a trade union concerned the Tolpuddle Martyrs – six agricultural labourers from the Tolpuddle in Dorset who were sentenced to penal transportation to Australia in 1834 for swearing a secret oath of membership in a society that was a forerunner to modern trade unions.[i] They were pardoned two years later and subsequently returned to England, although trade unions were not legalised in England until 1872. The Martyrs’ cause was strengthened by Christian faith – the society they joined was led by a local Methodist preacher. The subsequent history of trade unionism has continued to be influenced by Christians who have called for justice for workers.

The difficulty often comes in the modern world in reconciling the desire for justice with the compassion that motivates so many Christians to be involved in professions that provide or care for vulnerable and needy people. Strikes cause harm to innocent people. When trains are not running, families cannot get together and people miss important appointments. When nurses walk out, waiting lists will increase and patients will receive more basic care. Christians cannot think about justice without also considering compassion. A third factor should also influence Christian thinking about this issue – the priority of the gospel. In what follows, I will consider these three factors in turn.

Justice – a fair deal for all

Christians should care about justice. Fairness is an important principle in the Bible and the Word of God is clear in its denouncement of rich people who oppress the poor.[ii] The peaceful withdrawal of labour must surely be an appropriate course of action in situations when an oppressive or unjust employer will not listen to the complaints or suggestions of workers. I see no reason for Christians to be ideologically opposed to trade unions or strikes in principle. A commitment to fairness will, however, also cause Christians to seek to take all other possible actions before striking. They will work hard at negotiations with employers, seeking to understand fairly what is being said and how the situation seems to the ‘other side’. The desire of the Christian should be for a peaceful and honourable resolution to conflict. Christians will be guarded in their speech, seeking to say only what is true, without presuming to judge motivations that cannot be known. They will not misrepresent others or present dishonest claims.

A wider issue with the justice argument for industrial action is the challenge of deciding when pay is unfair. In a society in which pay inequalities are embedded and accepted, what is a fair wage for a given job? How do we measure the value of one kind of work against another? Is it enough that people have what they need for the bare essentials – nutritious food, warm and secure housing, affordable transport and adequate clothing? Or should people in the twenty-first century reasonably expect to afford what may be called luxuries – a family holiday, a mobile phone contract, a subscription to a streaming service or the occasional meal out?

The injustices of pay scales are a huge issue that is not easily resolved. Our society, sadly, tends to have only one way to value anything – the price tag. We do not put much economic value on child raising or caring for vulnerable people. We do put massive economic value on professional sportsmanship and entertainment. What does this say about our values? Christians should be committed to a wider vision of social justice in which every person is valued and all contributions to society are appreciated. We should work towards a society in which no one is unfairly disadvantaged and the most vulnerable are protected. If Christians do become involved in industrial action, they must be careful to ensure they are not acting in a way that could be unjust towards others who are more disadvantaged than they are.

Questions of appropriate levels of pay rise must also be considered within the wider economic climate. At a time like 2022, when there is war in Europe and we are emerging from a costly pandemic, with the economy in recession, is it reasonable for anyone to expect their pay to increase above inflation? Should public sector workers demand what is not available to people in the private sector (still less those, like me, in the ‘third’ or charitable sector)? Do we not, rather, need to buckle down together and accept a drop in our collective standard of living, at least in the medium term? I do not claim to have a simple answer to these questions, but they must surely factor in a Christian’s thinking as he or she considers strike action.

Compassion – caring for those in need

Compassion must also influence our judgement. In general, I suggest that Christians should be more cautious about fighting for justice for themselves than for others. This reflects the pattern of the Lord Jesus but also the fact that we are easily misled about what is truly fair when it relates to ourselves. Those of us who are not considering strike action ourselves should exercise compassion when thinking about those who are considering it. For example, compassion for nurses who are under immense pressure in an overstretched system may cause us to support their call for strikes or at least to be moderate in how we express our concerns.

I was deeply moved by the comments of one nurse explaining the reasons why she voted for strike action.[iii] They were not really to do with pay at all. She expressed just how close to collapse she feels and how dysfunctional the NHS is. It is a story I hear every day from my NHS-employee wife and friends. The need to reform and rebuild the system is urgent and it is crucial to find a way to boost staff morale and improve retention. At the same time, we may wonder whether a pay rise is the best, or only, way to retain staff or improve morale. I suggest that other measures are at least equally important: improving communication, facilitating sensible leave policies, reducing pressures where possible and showing appreciation in multiple ways? Our nurses (and other healthcare professionals) need to experience the same compassion from managers and the public that we expect them to show to us. I fear that willingness to strike may be a symptom of compassion fatigue.

Christian faith promotes compassion. The distinctly Christian belief in the inestimable preciousness of every individual motivates Christians to want to care for them. Christian trust in God releases his supernatural power to keep on caring even in a tough system and when we feel underappreciated. That is not to say that Christians will not feel burdened or contemplate striking, but when they are making a balanced decision whether to strike, they will give significant weight to compassion for those who will be adversely affected by their actions. It is likely that Christians in caring professions will be slower to consider striking and that many will refuse to strike.

After all, a Christian never merely has a ‘job’. Every believer in Jesus has a ‘vocation’ – a calling from him to use whatever gifts he has given for Christ's glory and the good of others. We heed the command of the Lord through his apostle: "Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men".[iv] Earthly rewards may be unjust. Christ's heavenly reward never is. When a Christian contemplates strike action, then, he cannot simply consider the consequences for himself or even only for those affected by it. He must ask whether his Lord would have him strike. Will the One who called him to this work be pleased if he lays it down for the cause for which the strike has been called? This still does not mean that a Christian will never strike, but it will mean that Christians have a higher threshold before they will strike. Christians should not be swept along with the prevailing attitude in their profession without prayerfully seeking God’s will.

Priority of the gospel – commending Christ to others

Christians are not moved to care for others or to pursue justice simply because of the needs we see before us. Our ultimate motivation is the love of God for us and for others. We want people to know his love through our loving actions. We also want them to recognise the true source of that love. That is why Christians want to tell people that their good deeds flow from God’s grace not our inherent goodness. Christians want to commend the gospel of Jesus Christ to people so they come to trust in him and find forgiveness of sins and eternal life in him. When a Christian considers strike action, this priority must be foremost in his or her mind.

Difficult as it may seem for us to imagine, the New Testament commands people working within oppressive systems to work hard and show honour to their oppressive bosses.[v] That does not mean that Christians should not seek to change injustices when they can. As I have suggested already, the Bible is equally clear that it is good to seek justice for the oppressed. The point is that, when Christians cannot change the system and even if we can, we must remember the example of Jesus who suffered for us. He showed us how to endure suffering and his cross tells us that suffering can be redemptive. The injustice he bore, which resulted from our sin, brings justification for those who trust in him. When I consider how I act in my workplace, I must ask whether I am demonstrating God’s grace and whether my employer and colleagues (as well as those who receive my services) would see Jesus through me and understand the upside-down nature of God’s kingdom and salvation.

How does this principle impact the decision whether to strike? It should remind the Christian to maintain both fairness and compassion because that is the way of Jesus. It may also mean that even in situations when a Christian is convinced that industrial action is legitimate in the cause of justice and does not compromise compassion because the adverse impact on people is minimal, they may still decide not to strike because they want to maintain a relationship with others that can commend the gospel.

In these three principles, I have tried to delineate some of the factors Christians should consider when a union or workforce they are part of calls for a strike. I cannot give a simple answer. Each believer must consider the question individually and each instance will be distinct. It is likely that, in doing so, Christians may reach different conclusions. In that case, a fourth principle must come to bear – the unity of God’s people. No one should judge a fellow-believer who reaches a different conclusion about a matter like this which is not ‘black and white’. Rather, in these differences is an opportunity to show the kind of love that transcends differences and that puts the other first.

[i] See [ii] See, for example, James 5:1-6 [iii] See [iv] Colossians 3:23 [v] See the words to servants in 1 Peter 2:18-25.

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