Last week the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) started balloting their members for industrial action for the first time in their 106-year history. It has also been recently announced that the British Medical Association (BMA) and the National Education Union (NEU) will ballot junior doctors and teachers respectively for strike action. Also this week, the Communication Workers Union (CWU), which represents postal workers started the first of 19 planned strikes, and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) are into their fourth month of rail strikes. On Monday, the Criminal Barristers Association voted to end their strike following a settlement on a 15% rise in legal aid fees.
It looks like the UK is heading towards several months (and potentially longer) of industrial action across public and private sectors, with thousands of workers being asked to vote on, or participate in, industrial action.
So what are the ethics of industrial action? And in particular, should Christians strike?
The Christian View of Unionisation
This first thing that I think is worth noting is that Christians have been traditionally in favour of unionisation.
In his seminal book “Christianity and Social Order” Archbishop William Temple argues that “every citizen should have a voice in the conduct of the business or industry which is carried on by means of his labour…”, for “it is the responsible exercise of deliberate choice which most fully expresses personality and best deserves the great name freedom.” He goes on to suggest that trade unions are one key route by which workers can ensure their voices are heard. Temple’s ideas and book eventually pioneered the formation of the welfare state.
John Stott elaborates on Temple’s views in “Issues Facing Christians Today”, writing:
“Decision-making is a basic right of human beings, an essential component of our human dignity… In the West we now take political democracy for granted and are grateful to those who struggled long to secure universal suffrage, so that ordinary citizens might share in governing their country and in making laws they are then required to obey. Is the propriety of industrial democracy not equally self-evident?”
The bible speaks of the inherent value of all humans (Genesis 1:27, Psalm 8:4-8), and therefore in the eyes of Temple and Stott, workers ought to have a share in the decision-making of their organisation, rather than simply being cogs in an institutional machine.
Trade unions have become a natural route by which workers can gain this share in institutional decision-making, particularly in the public sector. In massive organisations such at the health service or legal system, one of the few ways workers can get their voices heard is through unions.
And one of the ways unions can get their voices heard is through industrial action.
Arguments Against Industrial Action
However, this is where there are more clear divergences of opinion. Should Christians vote in favour of, and participate in, industrial action?
Industrial action is intended to cause disruption to public services and negatively impact consumers, thus forcing decision-makers to change policy. It is a powerful weapon when negotiating employees’ pay, contracts and working conditions.
However, understandably there are Christians who are uneasy about deliberately causing others inconvenience, annoyance and suffering for their own benefit. This is particularly poignant for those in caring professions or who have a duty of care to consumers. In the bible, selfishness and greed are roundly condemned, and Christians are called to service and self-sacrifice for the sake of others. For example, in Philippians 2:3-4 (NIV), Paul writes:
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others”
Christians are called to value the needs of others above our own, following in the footsteps of Jesus Himself (Philippians 2:5-11).
Arguments In Favour of Industrial Action
However, at least to me, it seems unlikely that many of the union members considering or participating in industrial actions are driven purely by personal selfishness and greed. As the cost-of-living crisis escalates, and as inflation makes everything more expensive, there are many public-sector workers whose pay have not risen in line with inflation, and now are struggling to make ends meet. They are not driven to industrial action by greed but rather by the need to pay for basic necessities such as food, petrol and energy bills.
In addition, there are many who are driven by the desire for justice within their institution. Colleagues ought to fight for the rights of other colleagues when they observe unfair contracts or unacceptable working conditions.
And more broadly, some cite the need for strike action in order to reform institutions to make them better for consumers, as well as staff. The obvious example is in the health service, in which, some argue, poor pay and unacceptable working conditions have fuelled staff shortages, which in turn diminishes patient care and safety. Thus temporary staff shortages during industrial action may lead to improved staff pay and well-being, greater staff retention, and ultimately better patient care in the long-term.
Should Christians Strike?
We thus have a balance that needs to be struck between our duties to selflessly serve others, and the needs for justice and dignity (and sometimes the bare necessities) within our workforces. And clearly the balance will tip differently in each situation.
Firstly we need to assess the suffering and potential damage that strike action may cause to consumers and the general public. Rail and postal strikes have the potential to cause huge inconvenience to people’s daily routines. Lawyer strikes have the potential to lead to victims of injustices having even more protracted waits to see justice served, which can bring deep distress. And doctor and nursing strikes have the potential to exacerbate people’s suffering and may even lead to damage to patients’ health.
Secondly we need to assess the consequences of not undertaking industrial action. Are there other ways to reach a settlement that do not cause disruption to services? And if new agreed settlements are not reached, what will be the impact of inaction on employees, organisations and the public at large? Will the harm caused by inaction be greater than that caused by strikes?
It is worth finally mentioning that in these sorts of decisions, both options (inaction or strikes) are probably bad. If there was universally accepted good option, industrial action would not be in the discussion. Therefore, I would suggest that the question union-members need to ask is: “what is the least bad option?”. Is it less bad to accepted whatever settlement has already been agreed, or is it less bad to take industrial action. The answer will be different in each situation and each occupation.
But I think we should all at least agree that this is not a decision to take lightly.