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Protect The Dignity of Labor!

A few years ago there was a strike at a juvenile detention center that is near my house. The institution lies directly between my house and pretty much every place I ever drive to, so I had to go by it just about every time I set out. Every day the strikers would update a little sign to tell the world how many days they had been sitting outside, waiting for someone to meet their demands. That number ticked higher and higher. Eventually I figured that if 150 days had gone by and life within the jail was continuing just fine, the employer had learned to get along quite well without the staff. Nevertheless, they contained to remain outside; they continued their strike.

There would always be at least 6 or 8 people sitting at the end of the driveway that leads into the detention center. They would sit in the middle of the driveway so they could block any cars coming in, forcing the drivers to wait a few minutes. On either side of the driveway were little huts they had constructed of shipping crates, plywood and old blue tarps. By all appearances they were held together with nothing but gravity and a bit of frayed nylon rope. Outside each hut was an oil barrel loaded with wood to provide warmth on cool nights.

There was an assortment of garbage, broken lawn chairs, barrels, signs and other assorted trash scattered around the strike site. Any time I drove by the employees would be sitting on lawn chairs either kicked back reading novels or playing cards. For the first few days they held signs and waved at cars, but that stopped before long. For a while they held signs claiming that working conditions were not safe enough. Yet since they were striking for more money, I suppose they would have been happy enough to have those conditions remain the same or even deteriorate if only they were given a bit more money. Those signs eventually disappeared.

One of their signs brought a smirk to my face (or was it a grimace?) every time I would see it. Nailed to a tree beside one of their squalid little huts was a sign that said “PROTECT THE DIGNITY OF LABOR.” Every time I saw that sign I thought, “Oh, so this is dignified labor?” Is it dignified to pile garbage on the ground and to build huts that look like something from a squatter’s camp? Is it dignified to sit on the side of the road in track pants and a dirty t-shirt and read a novel for eight hours a day? Is there dignity in walking away from your job, your responsibilities, and the youth you claim to care for in order to lounge around outdoors day after day?

Dignified labor is labor done for the Lord. Giving an honest day’s work, whether it is as a a pastor, a homemaker, a laborer or a youth worker in a detention center is as dignified as one can be. Being a good employee and honoring God through your work—that is God’s recipe for dignity, success and joy.

To those people sitting at the end of the driveway over at the detention center I wanted to say this: If you want to be dignified in your labor, get out of that lawn chair, take down your huts, put out the fires and get back to work. But I had a feeling they wouldn’t listen. I had a feeling that the strike wasn’t about bringing dignity to labor at all.

I like what Wayne Grudem says about labor in his book Business for the Glory of God:

Employer/employee relationships provide many opportunities for glorifying God. On both sides of the transaction, we can imitate God, and he will take pleasure in us when he sees us showing honesty, fairness, trustworthiness, kindness, wisdom and skill, and keeping our word regarding how much we promised to pay or what work we agreed to do. The employer/employee relationship also gives opportunity to demonstrate proper exercise of authority and proper responses to authority, in imitation of the authority that has eternally existed between the Father and Son in the Trinity.

When the employer/employee arrangement is working properly, both parties benefit. This allows love for the other person to manifest itself. For example, let’s say that I have a job sewing shirts in someone else’s shop. I can honestly seek the good of my employer, and seek to sew as many shirts as possible for him along with attention to quality (compare 1 Tim. 6:2), and he can seek my good, because he will pay me at the end of the week for a job well done. As in every good business transaction, both parties end up better off then they were before. In this case, I have more money at the end of the week than I did before, and my employer has more shirts ready to take to market than he did before. And so we have worked together to produce something that did not exist in the world before that week—the world is 500 shirts “wealthier” than it was when the week began. Together we have created some new “wealth” in the world. This is a small example of obeying God’s command to “subdue” the earth (Gen 1:28) and make its resources useful for mankind. Now if we multiply that by millions of plants, millions of workers, and millions of different products, it is evident how the world gains material “wealth” that did not exist before—new products have been created by an employer hiring an employee to manufacture something.

Therefore if you hire me to work in your business, you are doing good for me and you are providing both of us with many opportunities to glorify God. It is the same way with hiring people to produce services—whether hiring teachers to teach in a school, doctors to care for people in a clinic, mechanics to fix cars, or painters to paint houses. The employer/employee relationship enables people to create services for others that were not there before.