RELIGION AND LABOUR II
Nurturing Justice 5 (2007)
The Government, with a Federal election defeat looming, recently conceded that major modifications were necessary to their Industrial Relations reform package. They now claim that a "safety net" of entitlements will be retained for the lowest paid workers. Whatever the merits of this attempt to improve the legislation by concocting an electoral "safety net" for themselves, we simply note that the basic issue we have been discussing has been avoided.
Workplaces are not simply machines. Government's calling is not that of remote control of the nation's workplaces from Canberra, occasionally pulling levers to ensure that more profits will be cranked out. Workplaces are places where we are called to exercise stewardship with the resources of God's creation in co-operation with other workers. The workplace may be highly mechanised but the workplace itself is not a machine and should not be treated as if it is. That, in a nutshell, is the problem with the current IR laws. The workplace is not a machine but a place where humans, God's image bearers, do our work and oversee our work so that it is improved. Here we also grow and develop. We make decisions, we learn how to respond to complex problems and so we form the day-to-day life of the enterprise. And we do this as employers and employees, as management and labour, as full-time, part-time and casual. And because work and workplaces are complex entities w need industrial unions to assist us in all kinds of ways. But this Government is threatened but that industrial need. For some deeply perverse reason they can only see unions as a spanner in the works.
The current Liberal-National Coalition have not in 11 years of office spent any time advocating reform to the work that people do. There is no attempt to address the meaningless monotony that some people have to endure to get paid. In their policies there is not a positive view of industrial unions and their contribution to the national economy. Why is this? Why do they see no advantage in advocating an alternative non-mechanistic view of the business enterprise and the workplace? In these terms they simply talk about workers those who like robots are simply programmed to receive more take-home pay. Presumably, this narrow vision has something to do with the way these elected members of paliament see themselves in their work. Indeed, the way they talk about Parliament it is as if it is the Board of Management of the National Enterprise. And they believe they are making themselves indispensable when they describe their legislation as lever pulling, turning on the public works, switching on educational investment, taking hold of the lever that allows the government to ease off on tax, and making sure that the interest rate lubricant prevents any "over heating". The mechanistic metaphor is very pervasive and it seems that economics is no longer about human responsibility, about a God-given calling to exercise stewardship. We have to wonder if the mechanistic obsession indicates a desire to keep our own human failings out of sight. It is as if economic problems are merely mechanical.
And so any questions about the meaning of work and the calling of the business enterprise is rendered irrelevant. This is a momentous issue and we will be returning to it regularly.
The aim now is to explore a Christian political industrial option. The previous broadsheet, Nurturing Justice 4 (2007) has suggested that it is timely to specify key elements of a Christian political option for business, industry and unionism.
Some of the readers of Nurturing Justice will have read articles by Bob Goudzwaard, the author of the piece re-published below. It was written 34 years ago. Keep that in mind as you assess its viewpoint. It's pertinence to our current discussion is that it draws attention to a key issue that sorely needs to be addressed if our national economy is to give expression to our God-given call to stewardship. The issue is: Who owns the enterprise?
At least since the industrial relations reforms of the Hawke-Keating-Crean Labor Government (1983-1996), Labor has pragmatically accommodated itself to the liberal-capitalist assumption that the enterprise is owned by those who provide capital. This is a view that Goudzwaard does not accept and the article gives good reasons for avoiding such a truncated and reductionistic view. Readers like ourselves, outside its original (Canadian) context, may still note the relevance of the principles to which the author refers. But any attempt to implement these in legislation will be no simple exercise. For starters, the view put forward here, requires further investigation on many legislative fronts. Moreover, readers in Fiji, New Zealand and Australia, should not read this as a criticism of current FTU, FOL or ACTU policies, except in so far as these bodies in any of their policies assume a "truncated and reduced" and "animalistic" view that treats workers, work-places, unions and enterprises as merely economic objects that exist to crank out material needs. Such a view flies in the face of the divine call to serve God and neighbour in our work.
Some of us in Australia and New Zealand were aware of this view in the early 1970s. It cannot be said that we have made great strides in elaborating its implications, even among our fellow Christians. But now, with a forward looking hope, we might do well to engage in a critical re-consideration of Goudzwaard's views. Our own assumptions need to be subjected to the searching light of God's call to do justice.
A Christian political option needs to grow in wisdom and knowledge about labour and industry if it is to express our God-given stewardship and make a difference in the workplace, industry, the nation, the region and the globe.
Religion and Labour
(The Guide October 1973 pp.6-7)
(c) Re-published with slightly revisions with permission of the author and of The Guide
Many people consider it ridiculous to make a link between religion and labour. After all, religion and business don't mix.
Partly, this conviction stems from the very peculiar but widespread notion that religion is restricted to the so-called sacred things of life. The moment we adopt such a conclusion, we must admit the difficulty of seeing any connection between the celebration of a solemn mass and the hostile atmosphere so often prevalent at the bargaining table.
We would do well to remember that such a narrow notion of religion results not only from the secret desire to behave a little less solemnly in the 'non-sacred' areas of life, but also from the urge to consider ourselves masters and law-givers in those areas.
However, there is more to this view however. The relationship between religion and labour is frequently obscured by the prevailing notion about the role and character of the industrial union. The union is commonly considered to be a power organization, designed only to further the material interests of its members. Generally, it is expected to carry out a well-organized, relentless drive for more and more. It seems obvious that such a view of the union has nothing to do with religion, when religion is viewed as the service of God. But then the unlimited drive for more material gain is by no means irreligious, since it is also driven religiously, by service of self. But within such a framework a Christian union is a contradiction in terms, an unattainable ideal.
The Reduction of Man to Animal
Essentially, we are dealing here with an animalistic view of life, a view which we meet almost everywhere. It is a view which tries to convince us that ultimately politics is nothing but a power struggle, that ultimately the wife-husband relationship is purely a matter of sex, and that ultimately work is only a means of making money. In such a vision the trade union as a mere power machine fits very well.
Why do I call this vision animalistic? Because all norms for human relationships have been ignored and eliminated. We are confronted here with a view in which human personality is truncated, cut down to its barest animal-like interests. To put it differently, in this conception the totality of social life has been reduced to the sum total of its founding functions. I use the term "founding functions" together with "qualifying functions", to describe the character of human relations, how they are founded and how they are qualified and distinguished.
Let me illustrate. The state is founded on the power of the sword. Similarly, a business enterprise is founded on the power to combine and correlate the diverse forces of production. The founding function of marriage is organic-biotic, for a marriage presupposes a physical unity of man and woman. However, does this mean that these founding functions express the deepest meaning of state, marriage and business enterprise? Of course not. The power of the state is not an end in itself. It serves to make justice triumph in all public relationships. Sexuality, too, is not an end in itself. It serves to deepen the intimate love between husband and wife. And a business enterprise can only reach its purpose if the productive powers within it are used not merely for the self-satisfaction of investors, but for the formation of an enterprise of stewardship.
Founding functions therefore call for further disclosure and development - what we technically refer to as an "opening-up" direction. Political power must open the way to justice, sexuality to love, and economic power to stewardship.
Therefore, the animalistic and truncated mentality which confines social life to money, sex and power is a deadly danger. It destroys life, eliminates meaning, and is, in the final analysis, nihilistic. In short, society becomes a wasteland, a prison with closed doors instead of an open vista.
The same also applies to the labour movement. It is quite easy to truncate, to reduce the trade union to an institution of workers who are only concerned for financial gain. It is ironic that many employers accuse the unions of such base motives, yet never cease to praise the profit motive as the leading principle of the corporation.
And it is because of this animalistic and truncated mentality, which has such deep roots in industrial relations and economic planning, that any appeal to a more Christian, normative approach to business and industrial relations proves so very difficult. Yet, it is of utmost importance that we try to do so, since the outworking of the truncated viewpoint shatters the myth that economic and industrial matters are religiously neutral. As the idea of a normative development of society gains acceptance, the belief in a false neutrality of business/ industrial life will no longer maintain its exclusive dominance. Work, in all of its valid facets, is another way of showing our love to God and our neighbour.
How can a trade union movement stimulate such a normative development and make it a part of its every-day life? I would like to give two examples by assessing the labour "factor" within the enterprise and in society and by analyzing the place and task of the trade union movement in today's social development.
Appreciation of the labour "factor"
The trade union movement has sometimes been credited with emancipating the production factor of labour. Undoubtedly, there is much truth in such a description. To illustrate this, we should go back for a moment to the animalistic view mentioned earlier in which the enterprise is not regarded as an institution of stewardship, but as a vehicle of commercial gain for the providers of capital. This still prevalent, if not dominant, orthodox-conservative view defines private enterprises as a) an object of private property and as b) an organization with a closed purpose, namely the acquisition of a maximum return on invested capital. Such a view of the enterprise - in which labour can only be one of the production factors - is still as common as it is repugnant. Countless people, including Governments, still maintain that the enterprise belongs to the shareholders.
Is there in such a view any room for the idea that the enterprise is a human community called to responsible stewardship? Of course not. Just as individual people cannot be owned, so also a community of people cannot be owned. Anyone who believes in the "ownership of the enterprise" obviously does not consider the enterprise as a human community. Instead, such a person inevitably regards the enterprise as a workshop with different production factors, of which labour is but one, along with capital, the machine, and raw materials. Rather than being respected as responsible subjects, workers are relegated to a position of mere objects in the production process.
At this point it is important to re-state the motive of the Christian trade-union movement. This movement has stressed that the worker, as God's image bearer, is not just an economic production factor, but is called to be an integral partner in the enterprise.
Perhaps it would be correct to state that the issue at stake here concerns our view of the enterprise rather than our view of the worker. For it is especially the enterprise which, in our culture, has often been reduced to an object of ownership, established for the restricted purpose of gaining maximum returns on investments. Within such a conception the worker as human being can at best be allotted a marginal place. However, as soon as the enterprise is regarded as an institution in which stewardship is central, the integral partnership of the worker automatically receives its proper emphasis.
At this point, the reader might pose the question: what is the difference between this Christian idea of the worker and the enterprise, and the socialist approach? After all, socialists, also speak of "emancipation of labour" and the right to co-determination and workers' participation.
Anyone who takes the trouble to study the deeper motives of the socialist movement will discover a fundamental difference which reveals itself also in the practical aspects of the issue. Where socialism adopts a truncated view of human personality and the enterprise it may distance itself from the view espoused by orthodox, traditional capitalisms, but it has found it very difficult to avoid its own closed and restricted view of man and society.
In orthodox socialism the enterprise consists of two production factors: the economic power of labour and the economic power capital, each struggling against the other for supremacy. The existing order is considered a capitalistic one which sees to it that the production factor capital constantly triumphs over the interests of the exploited worker class. It is remarkable that the traditional socialist idea also views the enterprise as an object.
As a consequence the socialist criticism is not that the enterprise cannot be owned (in the Christian terms that we are suggesting), but rather, that it is owned by the wrong people. As a small fraction of the total working class, the worker must wait for the liberation of his life which can only come about with the overthrow of the capitalist system.
It is for this reason that the true emancipation of labour cannot be realized by the socialist approach. When the enterprise is reduced to a mere object of the class struggle, and when men are blindly divided into two warring production factors, the Christian concept of communal responsibility of employers and employees cannot take root. Instead of communal responsibility, we are left with a brute class solidarity. Then life is indeed reduced to its founding functions: power pitted against power.
Trade unionism and societal development
It our modern society the labour movement possesses significant economic power. By means of wage demands, strikes and boycotts, the labour movement is able to force certain economic developments. Labour's power calls for a responsible use in accordance with the calling toward stewardship. At times, this calling requires the union to make certain wage demands. When the profits of an enterprise climb steadily, a wage increase is often the best corrective of the income distribution patter, especially when such an increase benefits those falling in the lower income brackets. But the reverse is true as well. Certain wage increases conflict with the calling of stewardship. I am thinking, for instance, of wage increases which do not correspond with increased production. Such increases are inflationary. Inflation is a very unjust form of income re-distribution inflicting the greatest harm to the economically weak among us. Inflationary wage increases, rather than being an exercise in responsible stewardship, result from a brute power struggle.
One may rightfully expect that every trade union, and especially the Christian one, realizes the need for a responsible exercise of its economic power. Usually, this is a difficult task which will not gain the union much popularity. Let's not fool ourselves. Too many union leaders and members refuse to realize these matters and insist that the union under all circumstances must demand more and more. It should be clear that we are faced here with a deadly danger. This danger becomes even greater in a time in which we slowly begin to realize the shocking results of our neglected stewardship towards the environment and the limited resources of energy and minerals. Our sense of stewardship will gradually have to lead us as westerners to accept stable or even declining income levels.
Will the labour movement, especially any Christian labour movement, be able to stand the test? That is a question of central importance for any efforts to give expression to a Christian view of stewardship in businesses and in industrial relations. It will depend on whether we reduce the labour movement to a materialistic power institution, or whether we will support it in its difficult task to develop as a genuine institution of stewardship.
The Guide is the monthly magazine of the Christian Labour Association of Canada http://www.clac.ca/information/flash.asp
Bob Goudzwaard is an emeritus Professor from the Free University of Amsterdam. His email address is email@example.com
Nurturing Justice May 2007 © The contents of this email are copyright. Documents may be photocopied or retransmitted in their entirety but not otherwise reprinted or transmitted without permission. "Nurturing Justice" is a project to encourage Christian political reflection based upon wise and loving civic participation. Comments welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org