The Basis of the Secular Trade Unions: An Alleged Religious Neutrality

Proponents of the American and Canadian trade union movement, for the most part affiliated with the American Federation of Labour-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO ) and the Canadian Labour Congress (C.L.C.), ardently proclaim that their unions are religiously neutral and therefore non-discriminatory. Trade union leaders never tire of pointing out that their organizations are open to everyone, regardless of his religious belief. Diversity of religious commitment is said to be irrelevant because “neutral” unions do not concern themselves with private religious beliefs. These unions are based upon the premise that religious convictions play no role in the actions and aims of the organization. This must not be understood to mean that the individual members mayor do not have any religious convictions. It simply means that trade unions, as organizations, are supposedly noncommittal (neutral) with respect to the various religious beliefs of their members. Today’s large labor unions seek to establish organizational unity without concern for religious diversity.

Unions jealously guard their claim to unity, based upon religious neutrality. They are aware that their so-called nondiscriminatory character is based upon this neutral unity or united neutrality. On the basis of this neutrality, union leaders, in league with many legislators, have decided that religious objections to union membership are invalid. Against this background it can be understood that the Ontario Labour Relations Board, in stating its reasons for refusing to certify a local affiliated with the Christian Labour Association of Canada (C.L.A.C.), compared workers who object to membership in a “neutral union” with persons “who because of their faith, object to receiving blood transfusions or joining the armed services.”1

Christian Organization: The Culprit

The same men who insist that the religiously neutral unions are non-discriminatory grow very insistent when accusing an avowedly Christian organization of prejudice and discrimination because of its commitment to the Christian faith and to its source, the Bible. Thus the C.L.A.C. stands accused of the worst possible offense at a time when slogans about “democracy” and “tolerance” fill the air.

How is the C.L.A.C. or any Christian union going to defend itself against these dreadful charges? It must do so in two ways: First, it must boldly and without compromise reiterate its belief in the authority of the Bible as the Word of God. It must not dodge the “charge” of being Christian nor be embarrassingly self-conscious when pointing out that it strives to know right from wrong, justice from injustice, in the light of the biblical revelation.

Secondly, the C.L.A.C. must demonstrate that the neutrality of the “neutral” unions is a myth, because it is based upon a premise actually derived from a religious commitment. The C.L.A.C. must be prepared to meet the challenge by demonstrating that this trade union movement is committed to certain religious beliefs and is therefore not entitled to lay claim to neutrality. (I use the term religious in the sense that it designates men’s beliefs in what they consider to be ultimate truths whether they be Christian or otherwise.)

There is a basic disagreement within the Christian community (also the Christian Reformed community!) with respect to membership in the secular trade unions. This disagreement is due to a lack of insight into the true character of these unions. Obviously, many Christians have accepted the unions’ claim as to neutrality. This is another reason why we consider a discussion about the character of the trade unions necessary and beneficial.

Belief in Neutrality Is a Religious Commitment

How can the unions lay claim to religious neutrality? Their attempt to appear religiously neutral is based upon the typically humanistic assumption that man is Dot subject to the rule or control of another, even God. Believers in neutrality deny God’s authority over every part of life. They are of the opinion that a labour union, as an organization, need not be subject to the Word of God. It is assumed that union affairs are outside the “religious” domain. Such belief in neutrality is a declaration to the effect that the biblical message regarding creation, man’s fall into sin, and redemption through Jesus Christ is irrelevant.

Neutrality always means a rejection of Jesus Christ, for it does not recognize him as the Lord and Redeemer of all life. How can it be argued that such rejection is neutral? Christians who accept the so-called neutrality idea should take a second look at the biblical message regarding Christ’s authority over all things (for example, Matt. 28:18, Romans 11:36, Col. 1:16–20, etc.).

The Supremacy of Man

Humanism, the underlying faith of the trade union movement, is the religious source of man’s belief in neutrality. For this reason it is correct to describe these unions as secular. The fundamental assumption of humanism is that human reason, not divine revelation, is the source of all truth; man is considered to be the measure of all things.

Stanley Knowles, in writing about the Canadian New Democratic Party, formulates this party’s belief as “the proposition that humanity comes first.”2 This is a typical expression of humanistic thought. One encounters this sentiment time and again when studying the ideas of the trade union leaders. This idea of man’s primacy is derived from a humanistic faith in man’s self·sufficiency and self-government.

The other side of this humanistic coin is its refusal to recognize the supremacy of Christ and his Word. This refusal constitutes the most weighty objection to the secular trade union movement. To accept membership in and to pledge allegiance to a labour organization rejecting the authority of Christ is to make questionable our confession of his Lordship. The following membership pledge, which hundreds of thousands of C.I.O. members are reported to have made, illustrates clearly the extent of allegiance demanded by such unions:

I do sincerely promise, of my own free will, to bear true allegiance to, and keep inviolate the principles of the Committee for Industrial Organizations,…to defend on all occasions and to the extent of my ability the members of our organization…I promise to cease work at any time I am called upon by the organization to do so…3

Obviously, such a pledge requires absolute conformity to the demands of the organization. But what to do if one cannot endorse the humanistic principles of the C.I.O.? And how can one honestly promise to defend on all occasions and to the extent of one’s ability the members of any organization? It is conceivable that on some occasions some members cannot be defended, but must be opposed. How can one morally pledge to cease work any time the organization so orders? The organization may be guilty of calling men out on strike when one is duty-bound to disobey. Secular unions do their utmost to gain control over the workers’ employment by insisting that workers join or sup· port a union as a condition of employment. It is well-known that this totalitarian power has often been abused by unscrupulous men. And union attempts to gain power through political action does not bode well for the future of our freedom. Unlimited concentration of economic and political power in the trade unions tends to undermine freedom.

The unions’ efforts to obtain totalitarian power must also be viewed as a logical consequence of their humanistic basis. Since humanism does not recognize any authority outside or above man’s own, it always tends to absolutize human authority.

Several dominant traits of the unions can be traced directly to their humanistic basis. I will list and discuss four of the most important ones.

The Primacy of Human Needs

The secular trade unions are motivated by a peculiar man·centered view of human needs divorced from the biblical perspective. This aspect of the trade unions is commonly overlooked.

Time and again it is pointed out that the unions have achieved many improvements for the working men and women. It is said that the trade unions arose out of a noble protest against inhumanly long workdays, wretched working conditions, starvation wages, woman and child labour, and other insufferable conditions. And no one should underestimate the terrible sufferings indicted upon the helpless men and women in the heyday of a lawless capitalism. The trade union movement may be credited with bringing about many urgently needed improvements. Many members and leaders fought valiantly for the economic betterment of workers and their families.

However, to gain a proper understanding we must delve a little deeper into the motivations underlying the unions’ efforts to relieve the plight of workers. It is commendable to promote justice and to protect the rights of workers, but it is first of all necessary to know the proper standard for justice and right. The Communists, too, have much to say about justice, right, and freedom. However, their interpretation of these words is wrong, for they have accepted the false standards of Marxism. Many other false standards deceive men. This demonstrates the need for knowing the true standard. The Christian’s infallible standard is the Word of God.

Evil and injustice do not solely and primarily consist in the exploitation of workers. They are always present when reverence for God and his Law is absent. A high level of wages or a superior standard of living does not alter this fact. A union seeking to improve wages and working conditions but not concerning itself in these matters with the holiness of God and the righteousness of his Kingdom is not promoting true justice.

Dr. Remkes Kooistra’s remarks about Christ’s honour are to the point. In his 1962 C.L.A.C. convention speech, he said:

Or don’t we see the nakedness of Christ in the 20th century? The evil forces, the worshippers of a humanistic ideal of freedom, have once again taken his coat without seam, now his royal robe, and try to cast lots for it…

Once again Christ is denied the power over all aspects of life and we look up to a Christ only for the soul, only for the church and maybe for the home; we look up to a Christ who is so terribly naked…He looks down upon us and asks us and keeps on asking. “Where did you bide my coat?”4

Many unionists are undoubtedly sincere in seeking the interests of the workers. But they are invariably governed by a man-centered view of the workers’ needs. To illustrate: two leading trade union men explain as follows that men have certain economic, psychological, and social needs which must be satisfied:

Labour unions are indispensable in the fulfillment of these needs because they can be satisfied only through group relations. Unions are peculiarly adapted toward this end since they serve workers as a means of self-expression, as a socially integrating force, as a provider of economic benefits, and as an instrument for participation in the productive process. Management by itself, through individual relations with workers cannot satisfy all three needs nor can unions alone. The joint efforts of both are required to provide workers with a well-rounded environment, a happy, prosperous, and secure life.5

Walter Reuther spoke in a similar vein when he thus described the trade union movement:

This is a crusade, a crusade to gear economic abundance to human needs. We plan to take management up to the mountaintop, an we would like to give them a little bit of the vision we have. We would like to show them the great new world that can be built if free labor and free management and free government and free people can cooperate together in harnessing the power of America and gearing it to the basic needs of the people.6

It is clear that these leaders consider the fulfillment of man’s needs on a completely horizontal level. Man’s desires and goals are directed to this life exclusively. His destiny is placed within himself and within this world. Life and work are completely secularized, and God and his service are considered to be irrelevant. These union leaders do not recognize that man’s real purpose and true fulfillment consists in obedient service of his Maker. They have no appreciation for the biblical message that men can bear fruit only when they are united in Christ, like the branches on a vine. Therefore, the secular trade union movement is a major source of secularizing influence.

We agree that improved working conditions and just wages are important. They concern God’s demands of justice and righteousness. However, they must always be seen in the framework of the biblical view of man. The unions’ secular view of man’s needs in reality restricts and distorts his real perspective. Man’s first need is to be reconciled to God through Christ’s redeeming grace and power. Without this redemption, life remains limited to this world and cannot reaDy flourish. Thus, life is impoverished in spite of high wages and a superior “standard of living.” Dr. Van Riessen significantly states that:

…where God is denied and materialistically man’s perspectives are limited to the earth…man’s horizon grows narrower, doubt and disillusionment appear when in actual practice reality turns out to the very opposite of his ideals. The earthly perspectives are incapable of rousing his enthusiasm, because they are not genuine perspectives. Then everything is meaningless, for man can only await death. Man is abandoned to himself. He experiences the loneliness of being forsaken by God and is now also lonely among men. He has no standards and can follow no meaningful course of action. In other words he is confronted with nihilism, and his agony and anxiety drive him to the masses.7


Faith in the Abilities of Good Men

Belief in man’s goodness and ability is a second trait of the unions’ humanistic basis. This belief is often quietly assumed, but is openly set forth by Walter Reuther in a discussion about democracy. He states that “…the intrinsic soundness and rightness of the ordinary person ‘is’…the finn base of confidence.”8

Mr. Tommy Douglas, leader of the Socialist New Democratic Party, wrote about the basic philosophy of this party and stated that it is grounded upon faith in:

(a) the essential moral nature of man;

(b) the equality of all men;

(c) the power of human reason and common sense.9

In view of the intimate relationship existing between the New Democratic Party and the secular trade union movement in Canada, we can assume that this statement of belief is endorsed by the trade unions. Obviously, however, Mr. Douglas’ clear-cut statement does not reflect the teachings of the Word of God. Very simply, if man is essentially good, the story of the fall into sin is not true, and Paul is not proclaiming the truth when he describes the utter sinfulness of man in Romans 3.

Another implication of the belief in man’s goodness is that Christ’s coming into the world and his work of redemption are unnecessary. We cannot offend the honour of our Lord more than by esteeming his work of reconciliation of no importance. Believers in human goodness prate much about human dignity and honour, whereas they thus dishonour the Name of our Lord. They appear to be blind to the fact that human dignity and honour are restored only in Christ. His words: “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5) are in stark contrast with their belief in man’s innate goodness and power. Belief in man’s goodness fosters a spirit of pride and self-sufficiency. This pride rings through many union leaders’ boastful claims about the accomplishments of their organizations. Walter Reuther waxes very eloquent when speaking about this subject. In a speech recalling the accomplishments of Phillip Murray and the labour movement, he called him “that great good man…[who] brought sunshine, and into their [steel workers, H .A.] old age a sense of security and dignity.”10 In describing the task of the labour movement he said:

We can stand with them and work with them. We can march with them in building that brave new world we dream of, that world in which men can live in peace as neighbors, that world where people everywhere can enjoy a fuller measure of social and economic justice, a world that you and I and men of good will everywhere can shape in the image of freedom and in the image of justice and in the image of brotherhood.11

On November 21, 1962, Claude Jodoin, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, addressed a seminar of the Hamilton and District Labour Council. Among other things, he said:

If workers today have decent wages, vacations, pension plans, insurance, and other benefits, they have them because of trade union activity.

A similar refrain can be detected in numerous other speeches of the trade union leaders. They betray the spirit of the man who centuries ago boasted about the great Babylon that he, Nebuchadnezzar, had built. There is no recognition that God is the giver of all things. This pride is a dishonour to God who is jealous of his own glory.

The pride of some union men can also be detected in their defense of compulsory union membership. The proponents of compulsory unionism claim that the workers owe allegiance to the unions because the unions have provided men with the necessities of life. There is no awareness of the fact that in everything we are and have we are dependent upon the grace of God. Here we notice a gross overestimation, or rather, an entirely wrong estimation of the unions’ role.

Injustice, A Socialist View of Its Origin and Cure

A third trait of the unions is their unbiblical explanation for evil and injustice, indicating the influence of certain Marxian tendencies.

The ideas of socialism, particularly the class-struggle principle, strongly influence the thoughts and actions of trade union leaders and members. Prof. John E. Coogan claims that the spirit of hostility was “built into” the American union movementY Until the merger of the A.F.L.–C.I.O. in 1955, the opening sentence of the A.F.L. dedicated the organization to the class struggle.

The president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, David Archer, in describing the basis of the unions stated:

The trade unionists on the other hand haven’t hesitated to call it the “class struggle,” a struggle between those who have and those who have not. The biblical reference is probably: “Thou shalt not build houses and others inhabit them. Thou shalt not grow vineyards and others eat the fruit thereof.”13

The biblical reference gives an ironic touch to Mr. Archer’s statement. It is incredible that he attempts to find biblical proof for the class-struggle principle. If he had been better acquainted with the real message of the Bible, he would have known that the Word of God does not lend itself for that purpose.

One of the underlying considerations of socialism is that injustice is localized in private ownership and the desire for profit. The solution prescribed by the socialists is really quite simple: change ownership or control of the most important means of production and distribution, control the economy by a centrally directed plan, and change the profit motive to a “service” motive. The introduction of these socialistic aims, according to many unionists, is needed for achieving welfare and security.

It is undoubtedly true that the rich have often abused their privilege at the expense of the poor. It is also true that the state has a positive duty to protect the weak against exploitation. However, evil does not lie in ownership as such, nor does it follow that a change of control or ownership will provide the cure. What is needed is a change of heart!

It is untrue that there are two kinds of people: those who are wicked and rich, and others who are good and poor. It is folly to think that evil is the exclusive property of the rich and that goodness necessarily resides with the poor. Although I am aware that few unionists would make this statement today, much of their thinking and action is heavily distorted by this black-white scheme. In his discussion of this subject Van Riessen observes:

It is easy to go astray in Our judgment. The wrath of socialism may have been justly brought down upon a great social injustice, but socialism, in its turn, was all too ready with its scheme of the wicked capitalists and the noble proletarians. Such a generalizing scheme is generally unfair; it is even dangerous. We might flatter ourselves with the vain hope that once the account with the capitalist is settled, everything will henceforth go just right. Fortunately experience has now taught many socialists to discard this dual classification; human wickedness is no longer the exclusive property of the capitalists. That is a gain of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, the original socialistic antithesis of capitalists and proletarians is Dot simply a tenet of Socialists; it is deeply rooted in popular opinion. It reveals itself repeatedly in conversation, writing, and social planning.14

Socialists often fail to take into account that all men are sinners and in need of the redeeming grace of Christ: the poor as well as the rich. Their view of evil, mistaking the symptom for the cause, gives them a wrong conception of its cure.

If it is true that ownership corrupts, it will make no difference to change ownership from the private to the public sphere. The socialists will of course hasten to explain that by changing ownership from the private to the public sector of society they have provided an adequate check upon abuse in the form of democratic control. Believe this if you can, but this argument does not sound very reassuring in view of alarming present-day tendencies to make governmental operation bureaucratic and uncontrollable. Furthermore, the socialists themselves often show that they do not really believe their own words about the “goodness” and “unselfishness” of the new managers and governmental supervisors who would do the planning and directing in a socialist society. The socialists are already busy undermining their own faith.

I should like to discuss the fact that the socialists have a completely wrong concept of the task of the government and the structure of society, but this would lead us too far afield. I merely wish to point briefly to the unions’ acceptance of a socialist explanation of evil and its cure, and to that as a result of their humanistic basis.

The Social Gospel

We must consider another aspect of the trade union movement in our discussion of its basis. The previously mentioned characteristics of the secular unions reflect an un-Christian belief. This is true with regard to the unwarranted idea that man’s needs can be fulfilled on a secular level, an unbiblical faith in human goodness, as well as a wrong explanation of social injustice. In addition, there is another basic element which has played a powerful role in the trade union movement. This element is provided by the social gospel. Social gospel followers do not purport to be materialistic and atheistic. They are convinced that their ideas embody the teachings of Christ. Their influence has been very strong in the trade union movement.

The social gospel arose out of a mixture of liberalism and an increased concern for the plight of the socially and economically weak. Kenneth McNaught gives the following definition of the social gospel:

The social gospel of Christianity is as difficult to define, for general acceptance, as is socialism itself; but for our present purpose certain generalizations may be made. Its central purpose was to work for “the Kingdom” in this world. It laid heavy emphasis upon the doctrine of love and proclaimed the principle of co-operation as opposed to that of competition. It asserted the brotherhood of man and decried excessive individualism and the adoration of the profit motive in economic life. It placed greater emphasis upon the temporal welfare of individuals and society than upon the salvation of particular immortal souls.15

The central characteristic of the social gospel is its preoccupation with the social problem and the demand for social justice. However, this is done in such a way that social injustice is not considered to be the consequence of a greater evil, namely, the evil that men as sinners rebel against the laws of the Creator. The social gospel makes hollow the full message of the Word of God.

Service of man is equated with the service of God. It attempts to provide a Christian veneer for an essentially un-Christian view of man and society. For this reason, it is more deceptive than outright hostility to Christianity and has slain its thousands among Christians. Christ is not considered to be the Son of God who came to atone for the sins of rich and poor alike, but he is regarded as a crusader for social reforms. An extreme example of this idea can be found in the Christmas editorial of the 1961 issue of Canadian Labour, the official publication of the Canadian Labour Congress:

At this time of year, millions of people around the world celebrate the anniversary of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The qualities personified in the birth, life and death of Christ have bad a profound impact upon establishing the standards which underlie every decent, moral society.

To the worker the circumstances of Jesus’ birth have a particular significance. It was no accident that the manifestation of the Messiah was granted to a simple workman and his wife. Nor was it an accident that the child born in a stable to become the hope of humanity should have been a craftsman and that the place of his birth should have been a country suffering under the domination and imperialism of a foreign aggressor.

Christ’s birth was the signal for a social revolution; his life and death were symbolic of the importance and dignity of the individual. His nativity was a signal of hope to the dispossessed. The fervent desire for a saviour was heightened by the oppressions of Rome where only the patricians were free citizens and the mass of the people were slaves. It was for those without hope, without dignity that the Christ-child’s coming was of the greatest significance. For those who had achieved in life a temporary measure of greatness, by their own standards, death was inevitably to become the great leveler.

In life on this earth, Christ was defeated and destroyed by a Roman government. In death he triumphed and his spirit was born again. Christmas is at once a period of joy and sadness but more than that it is a symbol of hope for mankind. The lessons of bT?t.h~hood and cooperation that he taught are implicit m the work of the labour movement which strives to ensure that “the meek shall inherit the earth.”

The social gospel’s preoccupation with the social problems made its followers a source of ready-made support for the secular trade union movement. The ideas of the social gospel harmonize with the other basic assumptions underlying the actions and goals of the trade unions. The winds of liberalism blowing through the churches, and the social and economic distress of the weak caused many churchmen to reduce Christianity to a mere social reform movement. This explains that many church leaders and members can be found among the supporters of the socialist party and the socialistically oriented trade unions. They fail to see that “the social problem is of absolutely no importance when compared to the commands to fear the Lord.”16

In criticizing the social gospel we must be careful to understand its background. Much of its influence and power is derived from men’s concern for the plight and suffering of their fellowmen. This concern can be appreciated and must also be viewed as a reaction over against the dead conservativism of many churches that were silent when they should have proclaimed the “thus saith the Lord.” Many churches, concerned about maintaining the status quo, failed to proclaim the full counsel of God. Woodsworth, one of the co-founders of the Canadian Socialist party, and others were aroused partly by this indifference. They became filled with a sense of urgency about the need for social reform.

In spite of the many good intentions of the social gospel men, we must guard against its influence. When evaluating the basic principles of the social Gospel in the light of the Word of God, we must conclude that it is a perverted gospel. In a discussion about the nature of religion and God, the late J. S. Woodsworth said that,

Religion in this broad sense is simply the utmost reach of man—his highest thinking about the deepest things in life; his response to the wireless messages that come to him out of the infinite; his planting of the flag of justice and brotherhood on a new and higher level of human attainment and purpose…,17

Also typical is this kind of expression: “you will save your own precious soul only as you give your life in the service of others.”18

These sentiments could be multiplied by many others. They indicate a view of God and man which is not derived from the Bible. For this reason we must also reject the fourth basic mark of the trade union movement. The claims of the social gospel are the most difficult to deal with because they seek to clothe themselves in the garment of Christianity. It is first of all necessary, therefore, that we live close to the Word of God to acquire spiritual sensitivity. This sensitivity is necessary to discern the spirit of our age and the underlying principal motivations of human institutions.

Walter Reuthe. spoke about the mountaintop from which he viewed the life of abundance and prosperity as “the great new world that can be built by free labor and free people.” Of course there is everything to be said in favour of striving fo. freedom and welfare. We, too, must be busy with that. However, Walter Reuthe. and his humanistic associates, in speaking about the “great new world,” ignore the message of the Word of God regarding human sinfulness and divine redemption. They do not take into account that it is only in Christ who came to make all things new that we can have true renewal. We, too, must be busy—but not without the Redeemer!

In Matthew 4:8–10 we read of a different mountain:

Once again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their glory. “All these,” he said, “I will give you, if you will only fall down and do me homage.” But Jesus said, “Begone, Satan: Scripture says, ‘you shall do homage to the Lord your God and worship him alone.’”

These words of our Lord, spoken many centuries ago, are of tremendous significance for us now! The choice before Christ was to worship God or Satan. We are faced with a similar choice today. The choice is not made easier by Satan’s use of sheep’s clothing. Yes, we must quickly say that we are unable to make the right choice in our own strength. But it is not impossible with him who overcame the Tempter on the mountaintop. Herein, and herein alone, lies our hope. Let us then read on and take courage: “Then the devil left him and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him” (Matt. 4:11).

1. Ontario Labour Relations Board, File No. 20576-80, November 13, 1961, p. 17.

2. Stanley Knowles, The New Party (Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1961), p. 28.

3. Quoted by John E. Coognn S. J.. Voluntary Unionism For Free Americans (National Right To Work Committee, Washington, D.C.), p. 3.

4. Dr. Remkes Kooistra, The Free Canadian (Published and distributed by the Christian Labour Association of Canada, Rexdale, Ont. 1062), p. 25.

5. Clinton S. Golden & Harold J. Ruttenhurg, The Dynamics of Industrial Democracy, p. 22.

6. Katherine B. Shippen, This Union Cause (New York: Harper Brothers), p. 171.

7. Dr. H. Van Riessen, The Society of the Future (Philadelphia’ The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co. 1952) pp 175, 176.

8. Henry M. Christman, Walter P. Reuther Selected Papers (New York: The MacMillan Co. 1961), p. 35.

9. Saturday Night, May 12, 1962, pp. 15 ff.

10. Henry M. Christman, Walter P. Reuther Selected Papers, p. 45.

11. Ibid., p. 58.

12. Ibid., p. 12.

13. Canadian Labour, Official Journal of the Canadian Labour Congress, Ottawa, May, 1961, p. 21.

14. Ibid., p. 96.

15. Kenneth McNaught, A Prophet in Politics (University of Toronto Press, 1959), pp. 48, 49.

16. H. Van Riessen, p. 102.

17. Kenneth McNaught, p. 138.

18. Ibid., p. 26.