For Christians, mutual service replaces mutual suspicion and cooperation replaces competition.

During the winter of 1978–79 there was industrial civil war in Britain. We had strikes of bakers, of garbage and other road haulage, railway workers, ambulance drivers, journalists and teachers, and of hospital social workers. During the first three months of 1979 more than five million working days were lost through industrial disturbances, which are more than half the total for the whole of 1978. Something went sour in our society.

Social turmoil is of special concern to Christians because we are in the business of right relations. Reconciliation is at the top of our agenda because it is at the heart of our gospel. Jesus is the world’s supreme peacemaker, and he tells his followers to be peacemakers too. But how?

A vital biblical principle is spelled out in 1 Kings 12. Despite his wisdom, Solomon had been a tyrant. His ambitious building program had been completed only by the use of forced labor. Industrial relations were at an all-time low. So when he died, the people described his oppressive regime as a “heavy yoke” and begged his son Rehoboam to lighten it. Moreover, the elder statesmen advised him to heed their appeal: “If you will be a servant to this people and serve them, they will be your servants” (v. 7).

Nevertheless, this principle remains the essential basis of every constitutional government and democratic institution. It is the principle of mutual service arising from mutual respect. It is service based on justice rather than mere expediency, for it recognizes people as human beings with human rights, made in God’s image, and deserving our respect as we deserve theirs. This is the fundamental truth behind the Old Testament instruction to care for the handicapped and destitute, and to administer justice impartially in the law courts, as well as behind the New Testament teaching about the regard masters and servants should show each other, since they have the same Lord and Judge.

Turning from biblical principle to contemporary society, the contrast is glaring. For what we have is an adversary situation born of suspicion, instead of a service situation born of trust. Moreover, it is deeply embedded in our stratified British society. As David Steel, the leader of the Liberal Party, said before the recent General Election: “The major single defect in British society … remains its class-ridden nature. Class division … bedevils … industrial relations.…” In consequence, many people feel underprivileged and alienated; what motivates them when they agitate for higher pay is not greed so much as grievance.

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Such a situation of strife is incompatible with the spirit of Jesus Christ, and in his name his people should set themselves against it. But how can mutual suspicion be replaced by mutual service, and competition by cooperation?

First, we should abolish discrimination. This applies to everything which perpetuates a “them-us” confrontation. What, for example, is the justification for making wage earners clock in, while the salaried staff do not? Or for restricting the former to a rather sleazy “works canteen” (workers cafeteria) while the latter have a posh “staff restaurant”?

Behind these symbols of discrimination there lies the reality of social injustice, namely the unjustified disparity between the high paid and the low paid. I do not think that total egalitarianism is the Christian way, for God himself has not made us equal in natural endowments. What Christians should oppose, however, is the inequality of privilege. Is it really beyond the wit of man to devise a graduated pay scale, which covers the whole range of workers, managers, and directors, which rewards training, skill, responsibility, achievement, and long service, plus conditions of dirt and danger (as well as responding to the laws of supply and demand), and which is seen to be just because all disparity is rationally justified?

Secondly, we should increase participation, both in decision making and profit sharing. In many companies the workers lack self-respect because they lack responsibility. They feel oppressed because they are powerless. Other people—remote, faceless people—make all the decisions for them. Their only role is to obey. But decision making is part of our humanness. To be a human being is to make responsible choices. To deny to adults a share in making decisions about matters that affect them is to treat them like children, even like machines.

In the last century Christians opposed slavery because by it humans were dehumanized by being owned by others. In this century we should oppose all labor arrangements in which humans are dehumanized by being used by others—even if they have signed away their responsibility in a voluntary contract. Thank God that on both sides of the Atlantic various experiments in industrial democracy are being made, whose purpose is to create a positive partnership between management and workers in the development of company strategy and in the making and implementing of decisions.

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Profit sharing also rests on biblical principle: “the laborer is worthy of his hire.” If a company prospers, the workers as well as the shareholders should benefit, whether in bonuses, in stock, or in pension.

Thirdly, we should emphasize cooperation. Labor unions were developed in the nineteenth century, as an indispensable protection of workers against exploitative bosses. Are they not an anachronism in the twentieth century? The tragedy is that confrontation is now built into the very structures of industry. Why should we assume that this structural confrontation is inevitable and everlasting? Why should we not dream of better structures that express cooperation instead? When management and labor are locked in confrontation, the public suffers; but when they cooperate in the service of the public, their relations to each other improve.

Good labor relations in contemporary society constitute a powerful challenge to Christians, whom God calls into business or industry, to help organize their company on the principle of mutual respect and service, to eliminate all unjustified discrimination, to facilitate full participation in power and profit, to develop cooperation in the service of the public, and so to demonstrate the possibility of industrial relations that are harmonious.

We Christians should not acquiesce in bad industrial relations as if they were inevitable. Even the unregenerate have an inborn sense of justice and compassion. Better relations are possible. We need both to exemplify them in the Christian fellowship and to work for them in the world, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”

John R. W. Stott is rector emeritus of All Souls Church, London, England.

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