At the Christian Social Congress held in 1891, described in the last article in this series, Mr. A. Wiersenga read a paper which addressed itself in part to the problem of the strike as a means for gaining social justice. In this paper Mr. Wiersenga laid down the following thesis: “The relative right to strike can by no means be denied. While in most cases it is not advisable to make use of this right, in some cases it may be the duty of the employees to strike.”
According to the records of the Congress this paper aroused a lengthy discussion involving as many as 20 debaters. As a result the following propositions were adopted:
Employers and Employees
1) Private initiative alone is unable to restore fully the organic, natural relationship in all its dimensions in the field of labor.
2) Private initiative can do much, however, in this respect by creating free associations of employees and of employers.
3) The right to strike can by no means be denied provided it is never used as a political instrument or as a willful breach of contract.
4) The Christian conscience will not allow the availing of oneself of this right until the conviction has been gained that all other means have been exhausted. In some cases, however, a strike may be the dutiful thing to do.
5) Also with a view to strikes an urgent need to restore the proper organic relationship in the field of labor is apparent.
These theses were adopted by the Congress. And so already in 1891 the Christian Social Congress answered in the affirmative the question as to whether the workers have the right to strike. Nor could it be asserted that this was the decision of a few of the Protestant denominations, or of a particular school of thought, or that the Christian view of ethics, economics, or law had been neglected in the discussion, since representatives of all these groups and sciences were present. Fact is, even representatives of both the employer as well as employee groups were represented at this Congress.
Much Discussion Ensues
Yet the problem was not finally solved at this Congress. In the year’s following the subject repeatedly came up for discussion. There were always a few Christian people who opposed the stand taken by the Congress. The Congress had given a clear testimony, however, and in the minds of those who stood at the very center of the social struggle the re was never any doubt as to the rightness of its decision. Those who opposed that stand were often found among them who stood outside the scene of the social struggle and who therefore approached the problem from a more theoretic point of view. It is very easy to understand that they should oppose the Congress’ stand on this issue. Many strikes have rocked industrial and even national life to its foundations. The strike is a terrible weapon, a veritable two-edged sword, which strikes not only those against whom it is used, but also the men who employ it and even the entire economic life of society. The strike is a weapon preferred by those who are filled with hatred towards the actual state of affairs—by revolutionary communists, socialists, anarchists, and syndicalists, who intend to destroy our present society regardless of the harmful consequences it might entail for innocent people.
It is, therefore, no wonder that many Christians not in a position to weigh carefully and accurately the existing social problem do not agree with this solution of the social problem’s accompanying phenomenon, the strike, and oppose this right of the worker unqualifiedly. These people simply reject the strike as a revolutionary action which bodes no good for the worker or for society as a whole. Moreover, even if a strike would have a favorable effect resulting in material benefits for a group of workers, these opponents of the strike claim that the Scriptures do not allow its use. And so the Bible has come to be quoted by those in favor of as well as those opposed to the decisions of the 1891 Congress regarding the use of the strike.
Which of these parties is right? We will attempt to follow the line or reasoning discoverable in the five theses adopted by the Congress, and thus come to an answer to this very important question. It is noteworthy from the very outset that the question as to the propriety of the strike is not put apart from the actual situation in society. Neither has it been considered as a merely theoretical question. On the contrary, the above mentioned decisions of the 1891 Congress place this question with in the framework of the existing social struggle. They begin by saying that something is wrong in society—that strikes are the consequence thereof—and that to outlaw strikes calls for the correction of and restoration to society of that which will right the wrong.
The Strike as a Symptom
Already more than 60 years ago Christian leaders representing different denominations and varying conceptions of the Faith, both scholars and men engaged in practical work, gave evidence of a deep insight into the nature of the unhealthy and ungodly situation in society. This depth of insight is unrivaled by men of later years, including Christian men today!
The first proposition adopted states that the proper organic relationship between employers and employees has been severed. While affirming that private initiative can do much, the bringing about of better relations between employers and employees can be filtered by the establishment of free associations by both employers and employees.
Society’s illness is apparent in the fact of the severed relations between those who, according to all law, be long together by virtue of their common task and aim in life, albeit in different places, either in the field of executive management or labor. They ought, therefore, to attempt to improve the quality of their mutual relations by establishing free associations. By this means they can attain to a closer mutual contact, better understanding and effective cooperation.
However, three men of 1891 were not men of mere fantasy or wild imagination. They knew quite well that the creation of such organizations and the arranging for the necessary cooperation between them for the re-establishment of a non-individualistic, organic social order would take time. They also anticipated a fierce struggle between “the haves” and “the have-nots.” In fact, they could not resist staring that they realized that such a struggle had already begun.
In that struggle what was to be done by the Christian?
Already the Preacher (Eccl. 4:1) had said : “…and, behold, the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter.” Has the worker the right to oppose this “power” and to say: “I should like to work for you, but the conditions you are prepared to offer are such that I cannot possibly accept them. Therefore I must reuse.” No one has ever denied that such is a worker’s right. It is obvious, however, that such an attitude is simply out of the question if maintained by one man alone. He will then be forced to accept starvation, especially during times and in places there general conditions of work are below the standard of a decent living. At the time of the adoption of the aforementioned theses the employers had accumulated so much power that over against it the individual worker by himself was utterly helpless.
As a result of this situation the labor unions came into existence. What a single worker could never have been able to achieve, and what the majority of employers, still holding to the doctrines of “the classical school” in economics (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”), would not be willing to give up voluntarily, could be gained by collective action, by a strike!
Before such a situation Christian men of 1891 were placed.
And their answer to the question as to whether the right to strike ought to be recognized also in the light of divine law was in the affirmative. Strange as it may seem, many Christians today strongly reject the right of collective refusal to work, which is the meaning of the strike whereas they would never think of denying the right of the individual to refuse a position of labor if the conditions are not acceptable.
In 1891 the Christian Social Congress clearly stated that the right to strike could not be denied!
This does not mean that they failed to appreciate the dangers involved, and they failed to appreciate the dangers involved, and they did not hesitate to take a firm stand with respect to them. You will find this reflected in propositions 3 and 4 (above).
No Political Strike!
The Congress rejected the use of a strike as a political instrument. Such strikes were often proclaimed by those who call themselves “syndicalists” (the theory, plan, or practice, of trade union action which aims by the general strike and direct action to establish control over production by organizations of workers), anarchists, communists in short, by revolutionary movements. Their aim is not in the first place to improve labor conditions, but to overthrow the actual state of things and to establish a “new order” by force. Karl Marx himself proclaimed the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat, that is, the laboring class. The older type of socialist for which now practically all have been absorbed by communism) promoted any strike which might cause unrest and revolt against the government. Such political strikes have often been proclaimed in the past, and a re being used even in our lime.1 The object of such strikes is always to put pressure on the existing government, which tactic can never be tolerated under a democratic constitution. Under such a constitution the members of parliament or congress are representatives of the people. This means that activity of this political strike type, which is an attempt to gain political objectives through other than legal channels, undermines the very foundations of a democratic system.
Strikes to Provoke Unrest
Sometimes, not always, strikes designed to promote unrest do aim at better working conditions or improved social legislation in behalf of the laboring-man, and sometimes such strikes have nothing to do wi th such aims. In the latter instance the objective is merely to arouse unrest or to overthrow the government. The 1891 Congress rejected such strikes as wrong, but it did not enter upon every detail involved. The principle was indeed proclaimed, and the Christian social movement was called upon to apply such principles in a given situation according to the light of the Word of God.
Strikes by Civil Servants
Very close to a political strike is a strike of government employees or of men working in public utilities, although there is some difference between the two. Civil Servants, police, the military on the one hand and the government on the other hand are in a different relationship to one another than those men who work for private companies. The former have to execute the task of the magistracy, the government, and in certain branches are actually part of the government. They do not have a labor con tract with the government, their positions being controlled by public law. For the sake of upholding the sovereignly of government they should not be allowed to strike. This implies, of course, that their position with respect to material needs is sufficiency safeguarded by means of public control.
So far as persons working for public utilities and other services which are of importance for the general welfare or the people are concerned, their right to strike should also be restricted. Water supply, gas, electricity, work in hospitals and the transportation system (railways, mail, communications) are of vital interest to the people. The disorder which would follow from strikes by workers in these and similar public services is intolerable in a well-organized state. It should, therefore, if necessary, be prevented by restriction of the right to strike. However precisely as in the case of civil servants, if the government places a restriction on strike activity for such reasons as cited above, it has also the moral duty to make appropriate provisions for procuring and maintaining such living conditions for such employees as can withstand any criticism.
On this continent public utilities, railroads, etc., are being operated by private companies, which is something distinct from current practice in most other countries of the world. This fact need not, and really should not mean that government has no responsibility toward the workers in such companies, nor should it mean that the government may not interfere if something is wrong with respect to the social position of such workers.
From the political strike, which has lillie to do with ordinary trade-union activity, we now come back to the question whether other strikes of an economic order are permitted according to Christian standards.
Not as a Breach of Contract
Proposition 3 still contains another restriction which reflects the time in which it was adopted.
Acknowledging the right to strike, no strike should be proclaimed or come into existence as a willful breach of a contract. In those times so-called “direct action” was often applied by revolutionary groups. The only aim often was to bring about unrest and disorder. Of course this was rejected by the Congress.
However, this rejection has a wider meaning, although the men of 1891 might not have seen this consequence. Collective agreements were extremely rare. The legal term of notice to quit was short, depending upon the term of payment. Still it was felt that it Christian man, having given his word to work under certain conditions, should not quit or give notice untimely. Work stoppage should not be an act of violence or of anger, but a carefully considered act, based upon arguments which one feels should be put on the scales of an accurately weighed judgment.
Moreover, a contract, either a personal contract to work under certain conditions, or a personal contract covered by a collective agreement, should be kept in all good faith. Before the expiration of the contract there should be the opportunity to discuss eventual changes and to review the terms of the contract. If no agreement can he made regarding conditions mutually acceptable, a stoppage of work, until agreement has been reached, is surely permitted. This is, under prevailing social and relationship circumstances, the only means for the workers to come to a suitable and honest arrangement. This is, as such, part of the freedom of contract, recognized in all civilized nations as an inviolable human right.
The Christian Social Congress of 1891 did not include in its deliberations all the practices applied with regard to strikes, nowadays well known, but scarcely known in those times.
One of these practices is the “solidarity strike.” Sometimes a group of workers go on a strike because they feel other workers in the same plant or elsewhere have been wronged, and by joining them in a strike they try to support them in their effort to get things righted.
We all know that sometimes workers are severely wronged by their employer, have to undergo impossible pressure, are asked to execute godless instructions, etc. Under such circumstances certainly no Christian will deny that it is not only the right but even the duty of other men to put a stop to such action if they can. However, such circumstances are rare. In a democratic and constitutional state there are other means to bring an employer of that kind to his senses. In other cases, for example, as we have sometimes seen, when an employer was constantly deceiving the tax authorities with the help of his bookkeeper, a strike is not appropriate; the only answer for a Christian employee whose conscience is violated is to quit and leave the judgment and the consequences to God.
Generally speaking it is not advisable to help in a strike, if there is no direct conflict with the proper employer. The Christian social movement has always refused to take part in solidarity strikes. The character of such strikes is nearly always revolutionary. They cause unrest and hatred and may have evil consequences, especially for the workers whose interests are said to be pursued.
Sit Down Strike
In late years the so-called “sit-down strike” has often been applied. The workers stop working but stay in the factory and at their machines. Their idea is that the employer will soon give in and, by staying in the plant, they will prevent other men from taking their places. In most of such cases a breach of contract is involved. Christian men will not take part in such an action, which is a violation of the property rights of the employer.
And what about picket lines?
The idea of a picket line is to talk to those who wish to replace the strikers and to convince them that they should not do the work which the strikers have ceased for one reason or another to perform. In that sense a picket line is a kind of information center. During a strike an office is opened not far from the plant in which there is stoppage of work. The men who have come to do the work or the plant often live outside the town and don’t know what is going on. Therefore a picket line may be advisable. There is no reason for disapproval of the picket line as such.
However, not very seldom this means of obtaining the proper understanding of the strike tends to become a means of coercion. If the information cannot be adequate enough, or fails to convince, other means beside argument may he used against the “scabs,” such as persistent following molesting, even abuse of wife and children, etc. Literature has quite a fearful description of the means used by picketers to defend their cause.
Therefore, the use of these pickets should he “cry much controlled and kept in hand to prevent such irregularities. It cannot be denied that the language often used in union papers, though perhaps not, willfully, may give rise to an irritable mood among the strikers, which causes outbursts of anger and violence. The strike leaders should prevent the one as well as the other. If they have educated the workers in a spirit of hatred towards the employers and in the idea that their cause is always right, it wi ll he difficult and well nigh impossible for them to change their language during a strike. In fact, their language will be more hostile than ever. One need only to read a few of the many pamphlets which are usually issued in such situations to become convinced of that.
How all-important, therefore, is the existence of Christian unions under Christian leadership to revive a Christian spirit among the workers, even if they are in conflict with their employers.
All that has been set forth above shows that a large responsibility rests upon those who organize strikes and those who lake part in it.
Preposition 4 shows that the men of 1891 were fully aware of that responsibility.
It states: “The Christian conscience will not allow the availing of oneself of this right until the conviction has been gained, that all other means h;l\’e been exhausted.”
The dangers accompanyjng a strike are very great. We disclosed a few of them in the above lines. But there are more.
Even a strike, in operation within the above limits, may have serious consequences, both for the workers as well as for the employers. And also for the country. In Canada, 1,063,667 man-working days were lost in 1949 by strikes and lockouts, which means an enormous loss of goods which could have been produced for the benefit of the nation and the people.
But a strike is a two-edged sword. It hits not only the employer and the company but also the workers. They lose their wages during the strike and very often they don’t receive payment from their union. Even if the strike is won and their wages raised, they may have to work for a considerable time before they have regained which they lost during the strike. Moreover, a strike also may affect other industries which cannot obtain the necessary materials on account of a strike elsewhere.
Still proposition 4 does not refer to these evils. Its meaning in a few words is: For the Christian a strike is a final, extreme measure. There is a right of self-defense for the Christian, but he will not use this right save as a last resort. The Christian conscience, led by the Word o f God demands this attitude toward strikes. So the strike problem for the Christian employee is brought back to his conscience.
There is a right to strike for him because he is a free worker who at the time of the conclusion or renewal of a contract, need not be subject to the whims or the greed of his employer. He may deal with him either personally or collectively through his labor union, but whether he will go on strike is a question of his conscience.
Now it is impossible to set further rules beyond which the conscience should not go. In the first place, the standard of living in different countries and places is quite different, and the prosperity of the company as well as the economic situation should be taken into account.
In the second place, the attitude of management, plays a role. This is indeed very important, especially for Christian men. Having the belief that the working man is a creature of God no less than the employer, he cannot accept his refusal to deal or negotiate with regard to his working conditions in the broadest sense. The development of modern industry and the godless principles of the classical or liberal school in economy which accompanied it, deprived the worker of his right to have even the least say in one of the most important things in his life: his work, and the means upon which he has to live with his family.
Especially in the larger industries the worker is completely dependent upon the conditions management has set, unless he can take part in negotiations in this respect through his union. If management refuses to make a fair deal or even refuses to talk al all, the Christian worker will sooner be prepared to go on strike than if he does not like the conditions. Because it is not only the right of the worker which is being violated, but the laws of God are being trampled under foot.
Many a Christian employer has not understood this! Some limes he is of the opinion that he gives his men a fair wage and therefore he may expect gratitude from them. But he is not prepared to talk with them or to accept complaints. He refuses a written agreement and feels himself offended by it, because it makes him feel that he is not being trusted by his workmen. Sometimes he says he wants to he free without realizing that the more he is free in this respect the less his working men are free. Such Christian employers with all their generosity arc :letHally abusing their power and violate the commandments of God which say that you have to love your neighbors as yourself. They forfeit their right to complain of the many strikes which are held nowadays, because they deny the right o( the workers to achieve power through their union, whereas they are constantly building up power themselves.
A number of years ago long continued negotiations for a new contract in a branch of industry (the printers industry) had been going on, but the parties could not arrive at an agreement. The difference at last was only one cent an hour. The employers could by no means pay that one cent an hour, they stated. A strike seemed unavoidable and even the Christian unions were prepared to join in that strike.
Was that a course which Christian men could take? Could they go on strike for only one cent an hour? What about their Christian conscience in this case?
However, the underlying reason for the strike was the following. In this printers industry very good cooperation between employers’ associations rind labor unions had been established. Now the employers kept on saying that they could not pay that one cent more. The workers could not believe that. They doubted the uprightness and fairness of their employers in this respect. They felt that good relations would be spoiled for years, and thus this matter would become an obstacle for further cooperation if they gave in. So a strike was announced. Fortunately, it did not come to pass because reconciliation was accepted by both parties. Then it soon appeared that the one cent could be paid after all. Relations have since than improved, and the Christian workers gained the conviction that things had been straightened out just by their insistence. Differences of opinion are naturally always possible, but a strike is not the most appropriate means to settle them. Such was felt already so far back as 1891.
Good Relationships Must Be Restored
Proposition 5 therefore says: “Also with a view to strikes an urgent need to restore the proper organic relationship in the field of labor is apparent.” In the first thesis we also encountered the idea of the organic relationship in society. Here, at the end of the resolution, it appears again. We will enlarge on this subject in our next installment. In between the beginning and the end of the resolution, the question of the right to strike is settled. The workers should not be deprived of that right. No more than you should deprive a lonesome traveller from the weapons he is in need of to defend himself against the robbers and murderers he may meet on his journey should the worker be deprived of the right to strike.
Many Christians only see the evils of the strike without having discovered the evil state of relations in industry, of which the strike is only a symptom. They condemn the use of the strike weapon because it uses power, but they tolerate the use of power by the captains of industry.
The Christian Social Congress took it different and, in our opinion, a more Christian stand. Then stand was that the commandments of God have been persistently trodden under fool. As a result the development of society has taken a wrong course. We Christians are responsible for it. We could have known the wav since the Word of God gives light. As long as we cannot change the ungodly course of world history—though we should not leave off trying in the strength of God—and as long as the organization of society, which is now based on principles which are contrary to the will of God, has not been changed, we shall not deprive the weakest of their only weapons: their organization and the right to strike. Their organization and those of the employers constitute the private initiative to restore the organic relationship in the field of labor in all its dimensions.
The right to strike is indispensable during this intervening period, but it will wither away when the restoration of the organic bonds has been completed and other ways and means are open for all those who are performing their daily task to obtain their rights and execute their divine calling: “Subdue the earth.”
How well this was seen by the men of 1891 is clearly demonstrated by the development of business relations in Holland and the fact that strikes in that country hardly took place at all since the end of World War II.
(1) The Canadian seamen’s strike of 1949 is said to have been a political strike organized by the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform) so that the Marshall Plan shipments would not be delivered in time.