Were the Hebrews Unionized?

Posted on November 19, 2011. Filed under: Culture, Economics |

Botox is so sexy

Image by ekai via Flickr

Twice this week I had two family members discuss unions with me. One has the joy of employing union workers while the other is friends with many union-membered firefighters, and both are from the state of Ohio. For those unaware, last week, Ohio’s voters rejected Issue 2, which limited public employee union benefits. (Oddly enough, while Ohioans voted to overturn a law that returned more freedom to Ohio’s citizens, those same voters overwhelming rejected the Federal government’s ability to mandate healthcare on the grounds that it violated…freedom.) Apparently, 299 cloudy days a year has a side effect of making residents schizophrenic. So how would Jesus feel about Issue 2, or more broadly speaking, unions? Does the Bible say anything about whether we should support bargaining ‘rights’ or the ‘rights’ of the employer?

Both, actually. Jesus gives the account of the Parable of the Tenants in Mark 12:1-12. This parable tells the story of a man who planted a vineyard, rented it out to local farmers to work the land, and left for a nice vacation. After some time, the owner sent servant after servant and eventually his own son to collect some of the vineyard’s yield. But each time, the farmers beat the messengers and eventually killed the owner’s son (and heir) so they could claim the land for themselves. Jesus said as a result, the owner would eventually kill the tenants and lease the land out to other farmers.

For some historical context, it was not uncommon at the time for wealthy foreigners to purchase land and employ locals to work the land in exchange for an agreed portion of the land’s produce. With such a system, it might be easy to relate to the frustration of the workers who did all the work while the owner reaped the benefits. Some might argue that since the workers toiled, they are entitled to the land that the owner doesn’t even oversee, but Christ doesn’t appear to support this way of thinking. Instead, He argues that ownership still lies with the owner, something the farmers recognized at the beginning of the contract, but later forgot (ignored?). Furthermore, taking a land (or company’s) fruits (or profits) by force will lead to the destruction of those who sought to steal it, along with collateral damage for others not involved.

So, what is a over-worked and under-appreciated worker with no benefits to do? If you flip on back to Exodus, it starts off recalling the plight of the Israelites in Egypt. The Egyptians were worried because the Jews had taken God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” to heart. Even more worrisome for the Egyptians, the Jews occupied the land of Goshen located along the north-eastern border, ideal for any army interested in invading Egypt. If the Israelites sided with such an army, the results would be disastrous for the empire. Therefore, the Pharaoh “put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor…and worked them ruthlessly” (Exodus 1:11-13). Eventually, he ordered the death of all male babies (Exodus 1:22).

Pretty hard times for those workers. Pharaoh topped it off a few years later demanding bricks without providing them straw (Exodus 5:7). Could you imagine the UAW being forced to make cars with no steel? The NEA to teach without books? SAG to make films without botox? Some might think the Hebrews had no other option but to leave, but not so. Clearly, they had the numbers to pose a serious threat as illustrated by Pharaoh’s concern. And scripture attests the Israelites left Egypt armed for battle (Exodus 13:18). But these people didn’t respond by using their numbers as a weapon. Instead, they simply protested the freedom to go their own way and left peacefully.

Taken together, I believe God is trying to show us that the employee/employer relationship is based on mutual respect for each party’s freedom. Freedom for the employer to risk his capital on an investment that may or may not yield any fruit while employing workers to aid him in his quest. But this relationship should also be free of coercion, theft of property (which also means profits), and other hostile measures. Both employee and employer should have the freedom to leave the relationship once it is no longer mutually beneficial. Enslavement, on either side, is wrong.

So where does that leave unions in this country? Well, the private sector, where union membership has dropped to 6.9%, seems to have realized that it doesn’t pay to be unionized. But it doesn’t appear the public sector has gotten the message yet with 36.2% of government employee union membership. But if unions are banning together to fight for their ‘rights’ and opposing freedom for it’s employer (tax-payers), one has to wonder, how many servants will the tax-payer send and how many servants will unions beat before they both realize future generations are the ones setup up to be slaughtered.


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