Whatever our views on the ongoing strikes that continue to disrupt our public services, Christians should be committed to praying for peace, justice and God’s wisdom, says Tim Farron
This month we will see more strike action by nurses, ambulance workers, teachers, university staff, bus drivers, court staff, physiotherapists, civil servants and rail workers.
Members are striking over pay and conditions, arguing that their wages are not keeping up with the cost of living, or reflective of increasingly challenging working conditions. Those striking say that this is a last resort; that they fear for the future of their professions if fundamental changes are not made.
20 per cent of people using food banks are in work. And this includes nurses
In response, the government has introduced the Strikes Bill in Parliament, to set minimum levels of service which must be met during strike action. This is aimed at ensuring “the safety of the public and their access to public services”. Ministers believe that strikes are disruptive, irresponsible and dangerous, and fear an unaffordable spiral of wage claims and settlements.
The right to withdraw your labour is fundamental to living in a free society. But I acknowledge that not every union leader acts in the real long term interests of their members, or the wider public.
Through a different lens
Whatever we think about the strikes, how might we view this situation through the lens of biblical principles?
Firstly, God places a high value on work. Before the Fall, his mandate to Adam and Eve was to steward creation: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15).
The Old Testament laws say much about work and justice. Deuteronomy 24:14-15 says: “Do not take advantage of a hired worker…Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin.”
There are multiple warnings in the Bible against taking advantage of others, including the principle of jubilee, first mentioned in Leviticus 25. Under this arrangement, land and property were to be returned to their original owners every 50 years, and those in indentured servitude or slavery must be released.
The book of Proverbs emphasises the importance of working hard and being honest in dealing with others. And in Luke 10:7, Jesus stresses that the “workers deserve their wages”.
Forced into action
But how do we apply these principles to current events?
When those providing a vital service decide to withdraw it, some may see it as selfishness. But it is worth remembering that nurses have never gone on strike before. Those who devote their careers to caring for others are intensely aware of the impact of striking, but many see it as the only way to bring about change in systems that are buckling under current pressures.
Workers in the public sector are paid with public money, raised through taxation. Governments may feel constrained by economic circumstances and political philosophy that guides against increasing taxes.
When the cost of living shoots up, the same wages cover fewer bills, and the impact is felt across both public and private sectors. But the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that average pay in the private sector rose 7.2 per cent to November 2022, compared with 3.3 per cent for public sector workers.
40 per cent of people claiming Universal Credit are in work, but their wages are not enough to live on. The Trussell Trust found that 20 per cent of those using its food banks are in work. And this includes nurses.
There are multiple warnings in the Bible against taking advantage of others
What value does our society place on work as an expression of human dignity? And how does our government ensure that people can meet their basic needs from their income, when food and energy costs so much?
Reflecting God’s values
According to author and theologian, John Stott, work should bring “fulfillment to the worker, benefit to the community, and glory to God.”
How far do we see this reflected in 21st century Britain?
Whatever we think about the strikes, here are some ways we can pray:
- Let’s pray for constructive discussions between government, employers and unions, for each side to seek to understand the other and for neither to dig in for the sake of a power struggle.
- Let’s pray for a recognition of the dignity and value of work, particularly for those working in highly pressured conditions, and for a resolution that will be affordable to employers and respectful to employees.
- Let’s pray for access to God’s deep pools of wisdom in the debate around the sort of reform needed to ensure that our NHS, education system and other fundamental services are fit for today’s challenges and the circumstances we face.
The issues are complex and there are no easy answers, but we would hope that the posture, tone and attitude of Christian politicians and union leaders would be seasoned with grace, gentleness and a desire for justice and peace.
Let’s pray most of all for God’s justice to be done, and for his love and compassion to be reflected across our public services.