A labor union is an organization of workers intended to advance its members’ interests in matters affecting their wages, benefits, and working conditions. Labor unions are neither good nor bad, per se; they are merely tools that can be utilized for good or evil purposes. The Bible does not address labor unions, but it gives some useful guidance, including principles governing work and dealing with authority in our lives.
Unions can be a good thing for workers at a bad company that forces bad policies or rules on its workers. Some companies have abused their employees, and unions have stood up for the helpless and given them a voice. Historically, unions have worked to raise wages and improve benefits, especially for workers in the bottom and middle of the wage scale. And a labor union can help a person get days off for religious reasons. Still, joining a labor union should be a matter of prayer and seeking wise counsel.
The following are some biblical principles as they relate to labor unions:
Labor unions and the principle of work. God is a worker, and He designed us to be workers: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). “Six days you shall labor and do all your work” (Exodus 20:9). “Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth” (Proverbs 10:4). We are to work “wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people” (Ephesians 6:7). Insofar as labor unions promote work and have helped to bring about better working conditions for employees, they are a good thing.
Labor unions and the principle of submission. The concept of submission to authority is a difficult one for most of us. We chafe under the idea of someone telling us what to do. Many of us don’t trust leaders and sometimes have good reasons for not trusting them. We may also believe that, if we submit to someone, it somehow means we are of less value or importance than they.
Jesus modeled submission. Even though He was God, He submitted to His earthly parents (Luke 2:51). Even though He was coequal with the Father, He submitted His human will to that of the Father, even to the point of dying on the cross for our sins (Matthew 26:39; Philippians 2:8).
In addition, we have specific instructions from God about submitting to the human authority that He has established. Our submission to these authorities is not based on their deserving our submission or earning it. Our submission to them is based on our love and submission to God. We submit to these authorities because they are established by God:
1. Submitting to government (Romans 13:1–7)
2. Wives submitting to their husbands (Ephesians 5)
3. Submission to bosses (1 Peter 2:18–19)
The principle is that we should submit to the authorities over us unless we have a biblical reason not to do so. In the United States, we have the freedom to leave a job if we can no longer submit to our authority with a clear conscience.
In Matthew 20:1–15, Jesus used employment as an illustration of the kingdom of heaven. The focus is a landowner’s hiring practices. In that passage, there is no “collective bargaining” mentioned, and the group of employees did not have the right to tell the employer what to do. In verse 15, the employer asks a pointed question to those who complained about his policies: “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?” In Jesus’ story, the employees had the right to whatever was promised in a mutually agreed-upon contract, but they had no further rights to the employer’s time, money, or property.
Labor unions and the principle of contentment. John the Baptist, in Luke 3:14, counseled soldiers to be content with their wages. One of the primary roles of labor unions is to continually campaign for higher wages for their members, and this can promote discontent.
Paul tells us the secret to contentment: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:11–13). The secret to his contentment was Christ in him. Christ strengthened him and sustained him in all the circumstances of life.
Paul told believers to work for their masters as if they were working for the Lord: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3:22–24). Paul repeated the same command to the church at Ephesus, along with the promise of an inheritance of heavenly glory (Ephesians 6:5–8).
Labor unions and the principle of kindness. In a sinful world there will always be abuses, but the question is, How does God expect us to handle abuses? Christians are to be willing to suffer indignity at the hands of masters and not retaliate. In the fear of God, we submit to our bosses—“not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh” (1 Peter 2:18). It’s one thing for a labor union to work against unethical and criminal behavior on the part of the management, but it is another thing to instill contempt for employers and maintain an adversarial stance against authority.
A Christian who understands that working for an employer is like working for the Lord will view some union tactics with grave concern. Labor unions typically use the threat of boycotts, strikes, and work slowdowns as leverage for their demands, which some consider a violation of the Bible’s teaching against extortion (Luke 3:14). We are to “slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone” (Titus 3:2). Being polite and considerate is always commendable. “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).
Labor unions and the principle of conscience. Most unions do not take a biblical worldview. Often, union dues are funneled to ungodly causes such as abortion rights. Christian members of labor unions who object to the use of their money to fund causes that go against their sincere religious beliefs can write a letter to the union declaring their stand and asking that their portion of the dues be used for some other purpose.
Labor unions and the principle of equal yoking. Scripture says, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14). This applies to marriage, primarily, but it can also guide our choices in other personal relationships, in business, and in the matter of labor unions.
For those considering joining a labor union, here are some important questions to ask: Am I praying for my employer and the owners of the company? By being a part of a particular union, am I able to serve the Lord and bring Him glory? What is the agenda and purpose of the labor union? Does the union operate fairly and in the best interests for both the workers and the company? Will the dues I pay go toward causes I disagree with?
In the end, whether a Christian should join a labor union is a matter of conscience and sensitivity to the leading of the Lord. If you are convinced God wants you to join the union, then join it. It is a personal decision, not something another believer can place on you. Realize that, if you join a union, you are obligating yourself to function under their rules. Pray and seek the Lord for His guidance in the matter. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5–6).