On Sunday morning one of our primary school teachers approached me and asked for my view on industrial action. They face the possibility of strike action next week. I suddenly realised that I really didn’t have a view. Well, not one which could be described as ‘well informed’ anyway.
I’ve never really had occasion to think this one through. I joined the Armed Services in order to serve my country and we knew that the working conditions wouldn’t always be the best! I went into teaching to help educate children and never really gave any thought to the wage I’d earn, let alone the pension. And I became a church planter because I wanted to see people become Christians through hearing the gospel. I was just pleased that someone was prepared to pay me to do it. I’ve never belonged to a union. I’ve never had reason to even think about striking.
But some of our congregation now have to form an opinion. And act on it. And I’d like to help. So this is a first swing. I looked at my book shelf for help and inspiration. It was found wanting. I couldn’t find anything on the websites of Christian Institute, Christian Concern or Care, but I may have been looking in the wrong place. So if anyone wants to point me in the direction of resources, that’d be helpful. I’m not going to read a book on it. An article is about as long as it gets for me.
But as a result of my thinking, here are three preliminary observations.
1. Christians ought to be reluctant to strike
Industrial action comes about because industrial relations have turned sour. Unions resort to industrial action simply because negotiations have taken an unsatisfactory turn or have reached an unsatisfactory end. A strike then is a fairly brutal method of trying to influence the negotiations. It’s at the business end of the spectrum. Essentially it’s coercion. When we strike, we’re trying to force an employer’s hand. It’s the withdrawal of our labour until a grievance is settled. That’s an aggressive strategy and it’s one that a Christian ought to be reluctant to employ too readily. I’m not saying that it’s never right, though I am saying that it should make us cautious. Consider these words in 1 Peter 2
18 Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.
We’re meant to be submissive employees who, because of our faith, are prepared to stomach being wrongly treated. And so, in general, Christians should be reluctant to strike.
So what approach should employees take when they have a legitimate grievance with their employers? Negotiation. But we need to urge our union representatives to stay at the table and keep the discussion going. They need to make our case to try to persuade the employers of the rightness and reasonableness of our position. I’m not naive. I realise that employers may not always listen, they may not be objective in their deliberations and it may make no difference whatsoever. But we do need to be convinced that our union reps have exhausted all forms of communication before resorting to striking.
2. Christians must care about injustice
I’m not saying that Christians should never strike. There may be circumstances where that’s the right thing to do. The reason that I don’t think that loyalty to our employers is absolute is because there are situations where we need to be loyal to a greater cause. And that greater cause is justice and righteousness. There’s something godly about sticking up for the poor and the exploited. Even if we may be willing to work for an employer who treats the staff unfairly there will be times when we feel it’s appropriate to join in solidarity with our fellow workers and oppose the perpetuation of injustice.
Historically employers have exploited the work force. Their selfish greed for profits and the ready availability of a replacement unskilled workforce has enabled them to act unjustly. If they wanted to they could simply dismiss the rebellious workforce and replace it with others. Unions arose to make sure that the ‘little people’ had a voice. And that’s a good thing. I’m more positive about the existence of unions having thought about this than I was before (that may come as good news to one or two friends! Sorry it’s taken so long).
But I’m not sure that’s the situation with teachers. I’m not convinced that teachers are being exploited or victimised. I just think they’re going to have to work for longer for a smaller pension. Is that ideal? No, of course not. But we have a massive deficit and the Government is trying to balance the books. Public sector pay is therefore one area that has come under the microscope. One senior teacher, whom I respect enormously, said that she may well strike because she’s worried that the retirement and pension proposals will affect the recruitment of quality graduates into the profession. She may have a point. But if someone isn’t going to go into teaching because financially they’ll be a little bit worse off, then I’m not sure I want them teaching my children. No one becomes a teacher for the money. Or if they do, they don’t stick at it for long. You’ve got to love educating kids to go into teaching. And I’m not sure that a few thousand pounds will make a whole heap of difference. Do I think that teachers should be paid more? Yes. Do I think it’s unjust that they’re not? Not really. On the scale of injustices that’s pretty low down in my reckoning. The principal rewards in teaching aren’t principally financial.
Given that opposing injustice and exploitation are legitimate reasons for Christians to strike, we need to ask our union representatives why they think we’re taking industrial action. And I suspect, in the current economic climate, it’s worth asking whether the strike has more to do with the employment situation or the political situation. It’ll be hard to separate the two at times, especially with public sector jobs. But strikes have sometimes been used to challenge a democratically elected Government and not to protect individuals against exploitation. So we mustn’t be naive about the possibility of an orchestrated union agenda intended to undermine the current Government’s approach to the country’s financial deficit. We may well feel that the depth and rate of the cut in public spending is too deep and too fast. But I’m not at all sure that we should be saying that with a strike.
3. Christians need to be mindful of harm
Whilst the intention of industrial action is always to harm the employer, it often ends up being misdirected towards third parties. When the employer is the Government, it’s the general public that tend to bear the brunt. When it’s the educators who withdraw their labour, it’s the kids who miss out. And so it’s worth asking what the effect of the strike will be on them and how you’d explain and justify why you’re choosing not to teach them. I’d like to think that my seven-year old daughter would be able to hold her teacher to account and be able to understand whether her teacher had a good reason for going on strike. I’d like to see a few teachers justify why they’re going on strike to their classes. If they don’t feel that they can do that, then it’s worth asking whether it’s justified!
So what advice would I give to a teacher? You need to be convinced that you’re striking for reasons of injustice. If you are then go ahead and strike and make sure you justify your reasons to your kids, their parents and the church of which you’re a part. If you’re not convinced then I still think there’s value in belonging to a union. But it may be sensible to look for one that’s less militant in its’ approach to industrial action.