How does the biblical Christian worldview actually fit into the complex area of labour relations between employers and workers? A trade unionist, a business owner, and a theology of work expert respond.
Spain is one of the countries in the European Union that falls below the average trade union membership of around 25% of the population.
According to the European Commission, around 16% of the Spanish population belongs to a trade union, while, for example, in Belgium it is 55%, or in Scandinavian countries 70%.
The records of the Spanish Ministry of Labour show that there are around three million people in the country affiliated to a trade union.
One of them is Israel Soriano, who were a prevention delegate and is currently a union delegate in a factory of a chemical multinational company in Tarragona. “I wanted to start something new, and I realised that I could help my co-workers”, he says.
Israel is also a committed Christian and a member of a local evangelical church. “I think faith and values make me more sensitive in trying to help others”, adds Soriano.
But how does the biblical worldview actually fit into the complex area of labour relations between employers and workers? Spanish news website Protestante Digital has spoken to a Christian union leader, a Christian businessman and the head of a ministry focused on discipleship and Christian life training in the workplace, about how the gospel message can impact on the functioning and ethics of the union and labour world.
To understand the current situation, it is necessary to consider the background of trade union history.
Although the movement is now “very progressive, and has moved away from its purely labour origins to include issues of politics, sexual orientation and so on”, Soriano points out, its beginnings are linked to the same founding purpose and values that have shaped many of Europe's democracies.
“The only countries where there is a single union are those where there is no democracy”, says the national coordinator of the Graduate Bible Groups (GBG), Jaume Llenas. GBG trains professionals in thinking biblically about work-related issues.
For Llenas, “what makes the participation of Christians in trade unions uncomfortable is the underlying ideology of many of the unions”. He adds that “practically all trade unions are based on Marxism, but the reality is that at the origin of the trade union movement there is a Christian vision of defending workers from the degrading conditions that occurred after the industrial revolution”.
However, “several causes, including the institutionalisation of religious denominations or their support for the established power, make trade union organisations fall into the hands of Marxist ideology, which responded faster and better than religious institutions”.
Llenas explains that “in the Southern countries, a very important part of trade unionism is mainly anarchist, closely related to the agricultural sector. In central and western European countries, trade unionism is more Marxist, linked to a strong industrial structure. In contrast, in the UK, trade unionism has not been revolutionary, with a greater presence of Christians, who were founders of trade union organisations and later contributed to the formation of the Labour Party”.
“It may be that Christians feel more connected to this type of trade unionism than to that of Marxist origin, which is built on other ideological premises”, he adds.
With this in mind, and the approach Paul expresses in Ephesians 5:21 and onwards (especially 6:5-9), as well as in the letter to Philemon, says Llenas, the Christian strategy has more to do with “creating an environment in which slavery becomes simply impossible”.
Soriano agrees: “In an increasingly humanist world, where the vision that the centre is God is lost and men are self-sufficient and have to enjoy everything because death is the end, a progressive movement may seem antagonistic to 'traditionally Christian values', but I believe that the basis of trade unions are mutual respect, the search for equality and labour justice, which do coincide with traditional Christian values, because loving our neighbours implies treating them equally and respecting them”.
The evangelical business community recognises the importance of trade unions, but also considers that they are weighed down by factors such as the lack of “responsibility in job creation”, the excess of subsidies or the “increasing confrontation with unfavourable governments”.
Furthermore, they stress that the involvement of some of their leaders in corruption cases and the lack of “effective involvement” discredit the unions.
“This is evidenced by the decreasing participation in the major demonstrations, such as the Labour Day rallies, as well as the reduction in membership that is gradually taking place year after year", says Ángel González, representative of the Spanish group of Evangelicals in Economy and Business, Tres-e.
“On some occasions they make high-sounding declarations, but in practice there is no effective involvement. This arbitrariness discredits them and leads to disaffection”, he adds.
However, they recognise the need to “harmonise positions in negotiations between employers and trade unions”.
Llenas warns of the dangers that could face a society without trade union activity.
“A trade union is a group structure that was born to improve conditions that were unsustainable as a consequence of the industrial revolution of the 18th century in Europe, which brought thousands of peasants to the cities living in infra-human conditions. Thanks to the action of committed Christians, the creation of the welfare state, the work of trade unions, the situation of workers is now much better than it was then”, he says.
Llenas points out that “some churches preach a purely individualistic gospel, but that is not the biblical perspective. There are Christians who identify the Christian vision with liberal individualism, whose ideology is to give complete freedom to market mechanisms, such as the law of offer and demand, because they believe that they work in a proper way and will produce a balance”.
However, “the reality is that when there is no equality between the contracting parties, in this case employers and workers, liberalism perpetuates and even increases inequalities. Trade unions correct those inequalities”.
“Another mechanism for correcting inequalities must be the state, which must protect the weak through the regulation of labour legislation. The Bible states that the state is a minister of God, it is a servant of God to promote good and to restrain evil”, stresses Llenas.
This is the first part of two of an in-depth article on Christians and trade unionism. Part two will be published on Evangelical Focus in the coming days.
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