What is the Adventist Church's stance on trade unions?

Questions & Answers June 13, 2016

Q: I don’t know how to help someone who is spiritually depressed and feels that she will not have eternal life because she belongs to a worker’s union. This person is now retired and is afraid if she cancels her insurance that comes from this union she will be neglecting her family and her own needs. She has a terminal illness and has been trying to find the answer to her situation. Also, how does this apply around the world? — G.C.

A: The question of labor unions is an important one. While we cannot give a complete answer here, let’s consider some important points.

First, let’s be clear that your friend’s salvation is not dependent upon whether or not she belongs to a labor union, but rather on her commitment and relationship with the Lord.

If she felt troubled by her membership in the union, it would have been good had she sought for an exemption to membership some time ago. The church’s Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department (PARL) has been able to assist in many such cases. For more information on PARL see adventistliberty.org and adventist.org/en/service/religious-liberty/.

If, now at the end of her life, she feels strongly about her membership in the labor union, she should pray, seek professional and spiritual counsel and follow her conscience, trusting that the Lord will guide and provide for her. She will need to ascertain, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit how to relate to this personal situation and relationship at this time in her life now that she is retired.

Throughout our history, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has discouraged its members from joining labor unions. Instead, we’ve encouraged them to be exempted and to donate an amount equal to the required union dues and fees to a non-union, non-religious charity.

This is not to say that labor unions have never done anything good. In fact, in their early years, they did assist in improving terrible and unsanitary working conditions, as well as leading out in abolishing of child labor.

Furthermore, as Christians, we should be aware that the Bible gives specific principles regarding labor relations. For example:

Biblical principles applicable to employers include:

• Fair treatment of workers (Deut 24:14; Lev 19:15).

• Timely payment for labor (Deut 24:15).

• Payment of wages adequate to support a family (Luke 10:7; Matt 20:2).

• Allocating a portion of profits to help the poor of the church and the surrounding community (Lev 19:10; 23:22; Deut 15:11; Gal 2:10).

Biblical principles applicable to employees include:

• Putting one’s entire soul into the work as for the Lord rather than just for human beings (Col. 3:23; Eccl 9:10).

• Doing honest work (Eph 4:28).

• Incurring no indebtedness other than that which can never be paid in full: “to love one another” (Rom 13:8).

• Living peaceably with all to the extent it depends on oneself (Rom 12:18).

So then, what’s the problem with labor unions? In an excellent article titled, “Adventist Labor Unions” that appeared in the North Pacific Union Gleaner some years ago, author Diana Justice identifies “two problematic principles about labor unions” (to read the article, visit https://bit.ly/laborunionfeature.) At the time, Ms. Justice was the associate director of PARL for the North Pacific Union Conference.

The two problematic principles of joining labor unions identified by Ms. Justice include:

1) Loss of free will.

2) Support of unchristian methods.

“When you join a labor union, your choice about employment matters is given over to the union,” she writes. “While obviously it is important that an Adventist employee should work positively as a team member, the Bible teaches us to avoid yoking with unbelievers in any way that compromises our own ability to act according to conscience.”

Secondly, “Labor unions are still notorious for using strong-arm methods to force compliance or otherwise get their way. … Adventists calling PARL for assistance have mentioned abuse such as general harassment, verbal isolation, tire slashing, destruction of products in the management’s store, threats of physical violence on those who choose of their own volition to cross picket lines, and, yes, threats to a person’s life. Union dues, officially or unofficially, support all of this.”

Finally, it is important to understand labor unions in light of last day events as portrayed through the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. These prophecies predict that in the end, persecution will arise to test God’s faithful people, that the powers of this world will unite, using legal and economic pressure to compel them to “worship the image of the beast” (Dan 11:44; 12:10; Rev 13:15-17).

It is within this context that we are given the following divine counsel through the Spirit of Prophecy: “The trade unions will be one of the agencies that will bring upon this earth a time of trouble such as has not been since the world began” (Manuscript Releases, vol. 4, p. 88).

Ellen White’s counsel on labor unions is clear here, and in many other places. We do not recommend Adventists joining unions because of the manner in which many operate and the role they will play in the time of the end. In questions of faith, compulsion is never appropriate. Every person and every religious organization should be free in matters of conscience to determine how to relate to God in their work and in all other activities.

If you have a question that you would like to send in for consideration in my Q&A posts, you may send it to: [email protected].