Thursday, September 24, 2009

Is There a Quaker Objection to Labor Unions?

I was wondering if you could answer a question about your religion for me. There is an employee at work that said that she cannot join the union because she is a Quaker. Can you please help me understand why that is?

Thanks for the clarification
An Interested Co-worker

I have been thinking about your question for a couple of days, and in fact I had a vigorous conversation with my husband about it, in which we did not see eye to eye. My reply will be lengthy and not very conclusive, but I will do my best.

When a Quaker says, "My religion does not allow me to do X," it is different from when a Baptist says, "My religion does not allow me to dance," or a Muslim says, "My religion does not allow me to drink alcohol." Quakerism does not come with a list of things that you are not allowed to do. Even certan practices that are common among Friends -- such as not taking judicial oaths or not serving in the military -- are still considered matters of individual conscience as guided by the Holy Spirit, and each Friend is expected to discern how he or she is being called, and then to test that discernment in worship and with the community.

The decision whether to join a union is one of the areas where Friends have found themselves called very differently from each other. I have known Quaker union members, and I know that at least one Friends organization is unionized. Friends who find themselves led to stay clear of union membership for religious reasons would probably give many different explanations for their choices. These explanations would be likely to refer to one or more of the "testimonies" that are frequently evident in Friends' efforts to live faithfully. There is no official list of testimonies, but typical principles described include: peace, simplicity, equality, integrity, and community.

In trying to imagine possible explanations that your co-worker might give, I have come up with several possibilities:

Some Friends interpret our commitment to peace and nonviolence to mean that they should never exert physical, economic, or other kinds of force to influence the wills of others. Only persuasion, witness, and prayer are acceptable routes to "get their way." If your co-worker has this perspective, then she would probably feel unwilling to strike or to use a threat of a strike in negotiation processes.

I have never been part of a union myself, although my grandmother was a labor organizer and I retain much of the "pro-union" attitude that was instilled in me in childhood. Nevertheless, at one time, I applied for a job in an organization that was unionized, and if I had ended up working there, I would have been required to make a decision about whether to join myself. Even though I do not personally adhere to the strict definition of nonviolence described in the paragraph above, I felt that to be part of an organization based on the principle of exerting "our interests and power" against "their interests and power" would encourage an attitude of opposition, and I found myself very uneasy about it.

I have a friend who is a Teamster. His conscience troubled him after he was recruited to become a shop steward and discovered himself in the role of always being expected to defend the worker, whether or not he agreed with the worker's grievance, or whether he thought the worker was right or wrong in a dispute. His mentors in the union advised him that yes, he sometimes had to go to bat for people who were abusing the system, but it was a necessary part of maintaining the union's ability to protect workers when they did deserve it. The mentors were probably right, but their assurance that it was "necessary" did not entirely give my friend peace. In his situation, I expect my religion would not "allow" me to accept a role in which I had doubts about my own honesty in specific instances. I would lose too much sleep.

I do not mean to suggest that any of these examples explains your co-worker's problem about joining the union -- only she can articulate her religious reasons. The same testimonies (e.g., peace, integrity) that can guide one Quaker to make a particular decision might guide other Friends to make very different decisions. And such reasons are not always explainable. Sometimes Friends weigh decisions for months, years, or decades because they feel a heaviness within or a spiritual stop that they cannot define, and they will not go forward until their hearts and minds are clear.

The requirement for Friends is not that we all choose the same responses, but that we have a tender conscience, that we seek guidance from the Light Within, and that we adhere to that guidance to the best of our ability.

Peace to you,
Chel Avery


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  3. Thanks for tackling this question. I'd be grateful if you could explain more how a commitment to peace and nonviolence could lead to an unwillingness to strike. I was thinking of the civil disobedience organized by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Thanks, Mark