Why Organized Labor Lost Its Way

Today is Labor Day which is not, as some surmise, a holiday merely to rest from our labors. It began as a celebration of labor unions and the workers that comprise them; unions like the ones that have played a prominent role in my life.

My life started in a union home. My father was a New York City union iron lather. His father was in a union. My uncle was in the NYC police union. My grandfather was in the NYC fire department--and worked hard for the union. Growing up it was hard to find anyone not in a union of some kind. There was never any possibility that we would not be pro-union. Unions were good for workers and that was good for us all. Later, after I had begun to pastor, those first we served churches were in union dominated cities.

I still remember driving up to a home to visit a union worker interested in our new church in Erie, PA. My current car was a Nissan Sentra. After his reaction, I sold that car and determined to go American built and union made. I stuck with that plan for over a decade--until I could not longer afford the repair bills on my American built and union made cars. Then I bought a Honda (made in America, btw).

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On the flip side, there have always been Christians who did not believe in unions. For example, a pamphlet on the subject of union membership explains the Protestant Reformed Church's view:

We refuse to become members of the Union because we condemn the principles of utter materialism of the Union; because the Union demands in the required oath or pledge loyalty to itself even though this loyalty to the Union would bring us into conflict with the interests of the Church of Jesus Christ our Lord; and because the Union seeks to gain its ends by force, strikes and boycotts, all of which militates against the Word of God which we hold dear and which is the first and last criterion for our conduct on earth ("Acts of the Synod 1941 of the Protestant Reformed Churches," pp. 75-77; synod adopted the letter and decided to send it to the president in Art. 83; in the following article, synod decided to send a copy "to every member of Congress and to every member of the President's Cabinet").

Though I understand the reasoning, I am not persuaded that unions are inherently wrong for Christians. Under our laws, unions can have legal standing and as such can take collective action. As long as nobody is forced and they choose to be a part of the union freely (without compulsion or requirement-- something that is often not the case), unions are simply the collective voice of workers in negotiation in management. The structure of today's unions are not always in line with the best practices of fairness, but the concept does not mean that Christians must not be a part of a union.

Yet, in a just society with a fair employer, a union would not be needed. When I did labor consulting for Lowes Home Improvement a few years ago, the focus was to create and maintain a workforce that did not need unions. If you treat workers justly and fairly, they do not need a union. If you treat them poorly, workers can form one.

There is little argument that unions were a key part of the formation of a middle class and a strong country. They were needed-- work weeks were brutal, conditions dangerous, and management had no accountability. Yet (for many) that need is seen as less important and the downside of unions are now more prominent in the minds of many Americans.

The Pew Research Center recently released a poll with the headline, "Labor Unions Seen as Good for Workers, Not U.S. Competitiveness." The story explained, "The favorability ratings for labor unions remain at nearly their lowest level in a quarter century with 45% expressing a positive view."

There are many reasons for this view. As you can see in the book Crash Course, the unions were willing to destroy the company in the foolhardy attempt to get what they could, for themselves, at the expense of the company. And, the attitude was clearly to preserve perks for existing employees, not to defend the rights of all employees. In other words, unions did what owners often did-- get all they can at the expense of others.

A healthy workplace values its employees and unions are not needed. But, all workplaces are not healthy. As such, we need unions (or the threat of unions) because of human nature. Yet, unchecked unionism is just as naive as unchecked capitalism.

When they are needed, unions (being composed of human beings like us) become more focused on their benefit and thus they fail at their task. The undermine the worker because they undermine the work.

When a union is working well, it gives workers the ability to unite and speak as one voice. And, that is needed at times. When employers treat employees fairly, the threat of a union itself can help force a fair response.

We live in a world where unions are still needed in some places. Unfortunately, the sense of entitlement and power has caused many unions to undermine their very existence. Simply put, America is turning on unions because many perceive that unions have often become bad for America.

Until that changes, the perception of unions and their value will continue to decline... at least until the pendulum swings once again.

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments-- what has been your experience with unions?

Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is President of LifeWay Research and LifeWay’s Missiologist in Residence. Adapted from Ed Stetzer's weblog at

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