The official attitude of the Mennonite Church (MC) in the 1950s to labor unions was described as follows in a 1954 report of the Committee on Economic and Social Relations of its General Conference: "In a manner analogous to that of the state, labor organizations as we know them serve a useful purpose for the maintenance of justice and a balance of power in a sub-Christian society. For this reason the Christian may cooperate with the union (as he does with the state) in so far as doing so does not conflict with his Christian testimony. Since they are power organizations, however, placing the demand for justice above the way of love, most unions reserve the right to use mediods out of harmony with the Christian testimony, the strike, which violates the principle of nonresistance, being an obvious example. For this reason it is believed that the Christian must find the place where he can most consistently draw the line between cooperation and non-cooperation with the union." This is the general position of the more conservative American Mennonite groups, including the Brethren in Christ Church. It has come to explicit formulation in the second quarter of the 20th century.
Continuous witness over over this period resulted in a rather general, and sometimes surprisingly sympathetic understanding of the Mennonite (MC) position by organized labor. One result of this was a series of formal understandings with numerous unions in which the conscience of the nonresistant employee was recognized, he being excused from union membership and activity with the understanding that in case of conflict between employees resulting in a strike he maintained a position of neutrality, taking part on neither side of the conflict. The nonresistant employee accepted the conditions of work as determined by the union and management, and he paid to the union the equivalent of union dues, which in numerous cases were specified as a contribution for the benevolent and welfare services of the union. By 1956 the Committee on Economic and Social Relations had signed general understandings of this type with six international unions, the agreements applying to every local of these internationals. In the case of numerous other unions regional and local understandings were entered into with the support of the international office, as well as many local understandings which did not necessarily have such support.
Although in 1956 hundreds of members of the Mennonite Church (MC) were working in union shop industries under the terms outlined above, and although this solution was generally considered satisfactory, the practice within the brotherhood with respect to labor relations was not uniform; and there was a general recognition that as in the case of the Christian's relation to the state so likewise his relation to the changing economic order required continuous study in order that his witness concerning social justice, love, and nonresistance be kept clear, and that he be enabled to make a positive contribution toward harmonious human relations in the industrial world.
In line with this conviction the Committee on Economic and Social Relations gave special attention to the responsibility of Mennonite industrial managers and their employees for mutual cooperation in the development of management-labor relations on the basis of Christian brotherhood, rather than by means of power in which management and labor were pitted against each other. Thus it was believed that the brotherhood would not only be giving a witness through the manner of its own economic relations, but would also be in a position to make a contribution to the achievement of harmonious management-labor relations in general.
After 1950 occasional meetings of Mennonite industrial employers and employees were held under the sponsorship of this committee towards this end, and a special study conference for the further examination of the Christian's relation to labor organizations was planned for the autumn of 1957.
In other Mennonite groups having a considerable number of men employed in industry, no similar explicit position was formulated, although similar basic concerns were present. In groups which were exclusively rural there was no need for a clear position. In Europe, where Mennonites have not maintained a clear position on nonresistance, no particular position on labor unions was taken. -- GFH
The growth of labor unions in the 20th century has created difficulties for Mennonites. A 1941 statement on industrial relations, adopted by both the Brethren in Christ and the Mennonite Church (MC), describes the problem. The document states that it is "our conviction that industrial organization in its present form involves a class struggle and conflict which is ultimately due to an absence of the Christian principle of love." Significantly, the document criticizes "unfair and unjust" practices by both employees and employers, rejecting the "coercive methods" of both "labor and capital." Acknowledging the propriety of some kinds of union activity, the conferences affirmed that "As employers we can have no part in manufacturers' or employers' associations in so far as they are organized for the purpose of fighting the labor movement." Extending the Christian love ethic to the rural sector they added, "As agriculturalists we can have no part in farmers' organizations in so far as they are organized for monopolistic or coercive purposes, ultimately employing such methods as the boycott and the strike."
In 1954 the Committee on Economic/Social Relations of the Mennonite Church (MC) modified the earlier stance. "In a manner analogous to that of the state, labor organizations as we know them serve a useful purpose for the maintenance of justice and a balance of power in a sub-Christian society." Conditional involvement would thus be permitted. "For this reason the Christian may cooperate with the union (as he does with the state) in so far as doing so does not conflict with his Christian testimony."
Since 1954 most other North American Mennonite conferences have adopted a similar stance. For example, in 1969 the General Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Churches decided, "That we ought not to forbid union membership," but counseled its members "to join no union which demands primary allegiance from its members over all other commitments...." Employees were urged "To seek to exert a Christian influence where such influence is possible." The Old Order Mennonites, the Amish, and other socially conservative groups still hold, generally, to non-involvement.
That the issue of labor union membership presents a great dilemma for Mennonites is substantiated in the Kauffman-Harder data found in the 1975 volume, Anabaptists four centuries later. On the one hand the labor union efforts to counteract the dehumanizing and exploitative aspects of certain kinds of industrial production are seen by some as compatible with the Anabaptist ethic. Doubtless the union emphasis on better wages and improved working conditions also played a part. On the other hand, Mennonites could not endorse the inherent reliance on coercion. The conflicting pressures that many thousands of Mennonites experienced as they found themselves pressured to join unions and tightly controlled professional associations seem evident in the responses.
Only 18 percent agreed with the statement that "a church member should not join a labor union if getting or holding a job depends on union membership." Percentages varied from a low of 18 for the Evangelical Mennonite Church to a high of 25 for the Mennonite Church (MC). (Only 14 percent overall agreed with the statement in a similar 1989 survey, with 17 percent support in the Mennonite Church (MC).) The statement, "A church member who owns or manages a shop should refuse to recognize or bargain with a labor union" was supported by 22 percent of all five Mennonite groups in the earlier survey. Further, only 17 percent disagreed with the statement that "the best attitude of a Christian laborer toward a union is to join and exert a Christian influence within the union's program and activities." The data cross-tabulation indicates that in labor relations as in other matters, the more urbanized Mennonites become, the less they adhere to the more traditional conference positions. For better or worse, most Mennonites who encounter labor unions seem to have found at least the minimal requirements of union membership compatible with their profession of faith.
Another expression of North American Mennonite views concerning labor unions can be found in the 1979 "Report on management/labor relations" produced by an inter-Mennonite study committee appointed by the influential and broadly based Mennonite Industry and Business Associates. Published in The marketplace in March 1980, following unanimous acceptance at a MIBA convention, the report, claiming to be neither "pro- or anti-management or labor," stressed that "the Christian's primary allegiance is to God, not to management, union or profession." It rejected "coercion, violence, militancy, threats, misrepresentation" and other similar tactics and added that "each Christian, in the context of the Christian community, must determine his or her response to management/union operation under given circumstances."
While developing an inclusive, biblically argued and analytically advanced document, the MIBA group has clearly modified as well as extended most of the earlier conference views. The report addressed the labor union question in the context of larger issues related to theology of work and theology of relationships. The MIBA report, enhanced by its broadly based inter-Mennonite authorship, identifies the complex issues and presents creative alternatives. It stands as arguably the best Mennonite treatment of the subject.
By the late 1980s the question of what constitutes the best Mennonite stance towards labor unions had become a major issue in many countries. A strike by primary school teachers in Mennonite Church (MC) mission schools in India, the 1958 confrontation with unions during the construction of buildings for the Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Indiana, and the fact of Mennonite leadership of strikes by school teachers and by professors in various regions of Canada, illustrate the dimensions and scope of the problem. As unionization gradually extends to the service sector, the professions, the civil service, and even agriculture, Mennonite congregations in North America and abroad find themselves grappling with a pressing set of questions. Many leaders and congregations have not known what advice to give striking teachers, nurses, physicians, factory workers, and, especially in Canada, postal workers and other government employees. The situation becomes even more difficult when Mennonites belonging to the same congregation find themselves involved on opposite sides during a crisis situation or when church members find themselves caught up in illegal strikes or lockouts.
As Mennonites leave closed communities and increasingly merge economically and socially with a society largely governed by adversarial and self-serving norms, they experience much difficulty holding to an alternate love ethic. Some seek to resolve the problem by consciously avoiding certain vocations or work situations. Others manage to negotiate exemption arrangements, some avoid the union aspects of their work, and still others compromise their ethics. Some, both employees and employers, have experienced major losses or severe penalties for holding consistently to their love ethic. On balance, Mennonites have had major difficulty successfully relating the peace position to their interaction with labor unions. In the years ahead ethical issues dealing with labor unions will be one of the most important practical testing grounds of Christians committed to the way of peace and reconciliation. -- JHR
Swartley, Willard and Cornelius J. Dyck, eds. An Annotated Bibliography of Mennonite Writings on War and Peace, 1930-1980. Scottdale, PA : Herald Press 1987: 282-286.
Kauffman, J. Howard and Leland Harder, eds. Anabaptists Four Centuries Later: a Profile of Five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Denominations. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1975: esp. 144-148.
Kauffman, J. Howard and Leo Driedger. The Mennonite Mosaic: Identity and Modernization. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1991: 207-208.
Lapp, John Allen. The Mennonite Church in India, 1897-1962, Studies in Anabaptist and Mennonite history. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1972: 124.
Wittlinger, Carlton O. Quest for Piety and Obedience: the Story of the Brethren in Christ. Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1978: 401-404.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 266-267, v. 5, pp. 502-503. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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APA style: Hershberger, Guy F. and John H. Redekop. (1989). Labor Unions. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/L205ME.html.