Labor has become a burly figure on the American scene. No one can fail to be impressed by this striding giant. But the impression left by the behavior of unions and their leaders at this point is that the labor movement in America has grown big and strong without “growing up.”
There are two things one notices particularly in connection with labor’s bigness. One is the huge appetite of the big, strong body. The other is the vast power with which the body stands its own ground or pushes others around at will.
Throughout its struggling years the labor movement endeavored to obtain for the workingman a larger share of the world’s goods. The endeavor, often very costly, has succeeded in improving greatly the workingman’s material circumstances. Shorter hours, better working conditions, more leisure, larger pay and other benefits have brought the laboring man into possession of a large share of the good things of life. These gains, however, have not resulted in a larger measure of contentment, nor in a happy and satisfying sense of significant achievement. They have merely whetted the appetite for more. Labor’s success at getting has sharpened a technique and shaped a spirit concerned almost always and predominantly with getting and getting more.
The overwhelming concern for getting has not been accompanied, meanwhile, by adequate concern for being and doing. The worker has been taught to think not in terms of the glory of work, the meaning of service to society, or dignity of the worker as creative and productive individual. Instead, the worker has been taught to think in terms of what he can wrest from the man who needs his skill.
This, when it is an almost exclusive way of looking at one’s job and predominant in the spirit of one’s approach to it, can do very little else than promote the spirit of thoroughgoing cupidity. The quality or measure of one’s work and sense of responsibility to one’s employer or to the society in which he lives are matters of little consequence. It is the getting that counts, and because of the preoccupation with getting, work itself loses meaning, dignity and interest.
This kind of thing lies at the bottom of the moral corruption that has become manifest in so much of labor union activities today. Dave Beck has been exercising labor’s fierce passion for getting, the more successfully because of his more favored position. Most of us are too angered at what we have learned to pity him, but it is a fact that Dave Beck is a sort of victim of the kind of cupidity the whole labor movement has been cultivating. He is in a sense the reflection of the mores of our times and our materialistic culture, and none of us can escape a measure of responsibility with him and for him.
This is part of labor’s great temptation. The very thing for which it was forced to fight, a share in the goods it produces, can, if this becomes an all-consuming objective, make of this giant a monstrosity—a big body with all appetite and no soul.
Labor’S Use Of Power
Labor has grown not only big, but strong. It had to be strong in order to maintain itself and to counterbalance the great pressures from management to which workingmen were subject. Labor has spent itself in courageous effort and has survived some tremendous battles. This struggle had in it something of the law of the jungle which permits survival of only the fittest. The labor movement has come out fit and strong and stands today as one of the major social and political forces in American society.
The possession of such vast power places the labor movement in a position of grave peril or of great opportunity. Power is peril if abused and misdirected. It is opportunity if put to the service of the community in a responsible way. Power is peril if there is no soul to govern, no conscience to set limits to it and give direction. Power has become peril to the whole movement of American labor because, grown strong, it has exercised its tremendous power selfishly and irresponsibly.
The power that labor holds over American industry and all of American life is sometimes awesome. In an industry-wide strike in crucial materials and services, labor unions may hold the health and life of masses of people in their hands. They have a strategic hold on the whole of our economy. The greater the power, the more urgent the need for a responsible conscience in the use of it. It is a pity that labor unions have often shown a total unconcern for the health of society and have been quite ready to destroy not only monetary but human values in order to achieve their ends. The right to strike has often been exercised with sheer arbitrariness and without reference to equally urgent rights existing within the life of the community.
Power thus used for achievement of the ends of a specific group is nothing other than fomenting of class struggle. Labor’s earlier complaints against class-conscious capitalists are hollow-sounding now, because labor shows itself ready, with ruthlessness that matches earlier power interests, to disregard the common good for the sake of its own class-interest.
The Need Of A Conscience
All of this increases the suspicion that while the labor movement in America has grown big and strong it has not grown up. What American labor needs is something other than a huge and devouring appetite, more than the hulking strength of a new giant. American labor needs a conscience that will place limits upon its concern for getting, and set its wants in the context of larger and abiding social values—a conscience that will make possible a responsible use and direction of the great power it wields.
Without attempting to offer a blueprint for labor’s refromation, it would appear that at least three things are basic to the moral character of so significant a social entitiy as the labor movement.
First of all, there is needed a sense of dignity of the worker and a sense of calling that is involved in the work he performs. A labor union professes to be concerned with a definition of the genius of the workingman as member of our common society. It is part of the fearful perversion of the whole labor movement that the genius of the American worker has been interpreted in sheer materialistic terms. The worker has been represented as an individual who works in order to get certain material gains, and he has been assured that for all his efforts he has a right to get as much as he can out of his labor.
Emptiness Of Perpetual Discontent
This is a horrible basis from which to start and a most unprofitable principle for understanding the meaning and value of work. One who is taught that work has meaning only for what he gets is being schooled in the spirit of perpetual discontent, and is left with a feeling of emptiness with reference to something that stands close to the center of his living. The first thing needed for the laborer’s conscience is sound conviction that man is essentially worker, that the fulfilment of life’s function and purpose is to be found in work, and that work itself is the crucial area for the most significant kind of achievement and service.
When he is taught that it is good to trim the measure and quality of his work in order to secure a set of by-ends in leisure, shorter hours and higher pay for the whole laboring fraternity, he is being taught to sell his birthright for a mess of pottage. An honest job ought not to be sacrificed for the sake of the dollar, nor pride of workmanship for weeks of leisure, nor responsible duty to his employer for loyalty to the gang.
Second, a requirement for any responsible labor movement is high sense of social responsibility. This needs no explication but it needs constant emphasis. Lip service to the interests of society is no substitute for real service rendered at cost of willing sacrifice. It is easy enough to return to the law of the jungle, because it is in the character of human nature to live for self with complete disregard of the interests of others. When men of such mind join together the tendency to selfishness is accentuated. And selfishness can achieve both demonic character and demonic proportions in group organization. A labor movement that becomes the agency for group interests and that rides roughshod over interests and needs of other members of society in the attempt to achieve its own ends, is corruptive of the meaning of labor itself and a curse to the society it is called upon to serve.
Third, involved in a responsible labor movement must be recognition of accountability to a law higher than the individual, higher than the group of which one is a member, and higher than the society in which one is placed. This means recognition of accountability to God, the Sovereign Lord of all, and to his law of love for his world and all his creatures. This is ultimately the basis for all morality in individual and social life and the only effective sanction for securing decency, justice and respectability in human relations. The American labor movement will come to responsible character, and be in position to serve its own members and all of society, if there is remembrance of the God whom all men must fear and to whose law and judgment all men are subject.
It is precisely on the score of these basic requirements that American labor unions have been in serious default. On this account they have corrupted American workingmen while endeavoring to secure for them materialistic bonanzas, and they have increased and intensified the problems of our society.
The Christian’S Responsibility
All of this raises the question concerning the Christian’s responsibility as a member of the laboring class. Corruptions have come into existing labor unions because the members have only too readily surrendered their sovereignty to the “labor leaders,” abdicating their rights and duties of active participation in union affairs. This is a confession that must be made not only of the mass of workers, but of the Christians in our labor unions. If Jesus made his followers the salt of the earth, where is the salting power? It seems profoundly weak in American labor unions. Perhaps there are two reasons for this weakness. One is the prodigious failure of the Christian churches in conditioning their members for vigorous exercise of a living Christian witness in common areas of daily life and work. The second is the related factor of a quietism that puts a profound apathy upon the social conscience of even Christian men, and which looks upon social evils as something from which to withdraw rather than to confront.
One doesn’t meet the labor problem by withdrawal. He merely bypasses it. And when it is the Christian who does this, no ground for complaint against the evils of the labor unions is left to him. He is, rather, coresponsible for them. There is tremendous opportunity for good and righteous men, including Christians of every kind, to perform real service for decency and respectability in labor unions. But the task is tremendous, too. Nor is there promise of easy achievement. The progress of goodness against evil in this evil world is never conveniently traceable. Men must live for goodness by faith. And the Christian’s role here, as in so many aspects of contemporary life, will be the struggle to keep his soul and to carry on the fight as the situation allows and demands against what is more than flesh and blood.
There is another possible way for exercise of the Christian’s social responsibility. That is the way of separate Christian organization. This kind of effort is, indeed, embodied in a small way in an already existing movement—that of the Christian Labor Association, with headquarters in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The Christian Labor Association had its origin some 25 years ago among a group of consecrated members of the Christian Reformed Church. These Christian laymen recognized the need of organization for achievement of social justice but considered existing labor unions unsatisfactory agencies for attainment of these ends. The movement is based upon Christian principles enunciated in the Scriptures and committed to the belief that the recognition of Christ the King and his Sovereign Word is necessary for resolution of problems of our sinful society. The movement has grown with painful slowness. It is concentrated largely in Western Michigan, and locals have been established also in other places where members of the Christian Reformed Church are concentrated—Chicago, Minnesota, California, among others.
Though it has won some notable victories over existing unions in courts of the land, the general effect of the CLA on existing major unions has been that of a nuisance value in certain areas. For the rest, the significance of this small labor movement is that it stands as a protest against the moral and spiritual failures of existing labor unions, and is an attempt to give witness by embodiment to the Christian social ideal.
The Christian Labor Association is bound to arouse the admiration of all who have taken notice of this movement led by men of strong commitment and great integrity. The movement has its limitations, however. It has been too closely associated with a specific church group and has sought undue support from ecclesiastical legislation concerning conditions of church membership. It has tended to the character of a religious society, committed to certain carefully defined theological tenets. And it has been governed in too large degree by the psychology of shelter from and against our present evil world.
The possibilities in the Christian Labor Association are significant, however. It could become a very large hope for Christians in America if its character were not only that of protest and witness against the secularization and corruption of existing unions, but that of a competitive labor movement seeking to embody for a large mass of American workers the concerns and ideals of a responsible laboring group within our society.
The germ of a competitive labor movement exists in this Christian Labor Association. It addresses itself to the basic labor situation, is concerned with social justice based on fundamental Christian principles, and is recognized by the National Labor Relations Board as a bona fide bargaining agency. Could this association, with a broader base, a wider appeal, less concern for confessional commitments and a less separatistic definition of the social task, be the hope for America to purge labor of some of its besetting perversions?
Renwick Harper Martin has served as Instructor in Political Science and then as President of Geneva College and now is Editor emeritus of The Christian Statesman. He has been Moderator of the Reformed Presbyterian Church and is author of Our Public Schools: Christian or Secular?
Preacher In The Red
“The movements of the Home Mission director are not without humorous touches. I was scheduled to appear in a small Alberta Church located about twelve miles from the nearest town on the main line.
Arrangements had been made whereby a car would meet me at the bus when I reached this town. However, upon getting off the bus I discovered that no one seemed to be the least interested in my arrival.
As the situation remained unchanged for at least fifteen minutes, I decided to take the initiative. Seeing a small panel delivery across the street and deducing that the young man behind the wheel was probably too shy to seek me out, I approached with the query, “Say, are you looking for a preacher?”
Upon coming a little closer I noticed that the interior of the cab had taken on quite a brilliant hue and I realized then that the transformation was accounted for by the presence of a young lady by his side.
Apparently my approach had been interpreted as the blustering attempt of a travelling ecclesiastic to drum up a little curb service business.
I made an apologetic and hasty retreat, to discover, gratefully, that my driver had arrived. The REV. GERALD M. WARD, First Baptist Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.
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