Labor Unions, Seventh-day Adventists, and Pioneer Ellen White: A Complicated History
The Supreme Court’s precedent-breaking decision, Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, places a spotlight on labor unions once again. In Janus the Court held that government employees who choose to opt out of public sector union membership cannot be forced to pay “agency fees” (a percentage of union dues) to a union. Justice Alito, writing for the majority, upended 40 years of precedent in overturning Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. and held that deducting agency fees from a nonconsenting employee’s paycheck is a violation of the First Amendment and equates to the government compelling the speech of a private citizen. Justice Kagan in her dissent argued that the majority’s decision in Janus allows objecting public employees to essentially be free riders, violates the legal principle of stare decisis, thereby wreaking “havoc on entrenched legislative and contractual arrangements,” and weaponizes the First Amendment.
Seventh-day Adventists have historically held a negative view of labor unions, with many Adventists conscientiously objecting to union membership. Ellen G. White, nineteenth-century visionary, prolific writer, and cofounder of the Adventist Church, took a strong stance against the sometimes-violent methods of the labor unions of her day. White lamented “the union men who have struck for higher wages, by their destruction of property, and their attempts to destroy life.” White strongly discouraged membership in these trade unions, cautioning that association would lead to participation in their destructive activities. She noted that these organizations often deprived others of freedom of action, and warned that many in leadership were motivated by selfishness and a love of power. White’s statements have undoubtedly influenced many Adventists to avoid membership in labor unions over the past 150 years of the church’s history.
The history of American labor in the early twentieth century, when many of White’s statements were written, attests to the tumultuous and often violent beginnings of organized labor in the United States. Labor strikes and attempts to organize workers often resulted in destruction of property and loss of life—with both sides sharing some responsibility. Some have noted, however, that the labor unions of today little resemble the unions of the early 1900s, and so White’s advice must be understood within the historical context in which it was given and applied accordingly today. Additionally, haven’t all Americans benefited from reforms spearheaded by organized labor? Arguably, labor unions played a vital part in advocating for the 40-hour workweek, fair wages, an end to child labor, safer working conditions, employer-funded health insurance and family medical leave—benefits enjoyed by most Americans.
Shortly after the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, individual Adventists filed lawsuits under the new civil rights law seeking religious accommodation that would allow them to avoid compulsory union membership. Two of the earliest cases involved Adventists who separately sued their former employers after they were terminated for refusing to join a union. Both had requested a reasonable accommodation that would allow them to avoid union membership and instead pay the equivalent of union dues to a recognized charity. The unions and employers in both cases refused to accommodate the Adventists, claiming it would present an undue hardship because their request violated the collective bargaining agreement. The unions also argued that the objecting employees would be “free riders”—enjoying the benefits of the collective bargaining agreements without contributing dues. On appeal, the courts ruled in favor of the Adventists, with the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit noting that “neither the union nor the employer offered any evidence to prove that union members thought that a person was a free rider if he paid the equivalent of union dues to a charity, nor was there any evidence offered to prove as a fact that the accommodation of [the Adventist employee] would otherwise have been an unduly difficult problem for the union.” For most Adventists, this arrangement proved a workable compromise.Conscientious objectors could opt out of union membership and avoid the free rider label by donating the equivalent of union dues to a charity.
God Hates Exploitation
God declares He is on the side of the poor and vulnerable. The Bible is replete with rebukes of the wealthy and powerful who exploit the poor and powerless. While the Bible commands Christians to respect authority and be diligent and industrious workers, the biblical prophets used harsh language to describe the fate of those who take advantage of the poor or defraud laborers of their just wages. Consider the following:
“Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. . . . You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty” (James 5:1-4, NIV).
“ ‘So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify . . . against those who defraud laborers of their wages . . . but do not fear me,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Malachi 3:5, NIV).
“Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. 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”(Deuteronomy 24:14, 15, NIV).
Ellen G. White, while opposed to labor unions, also strongly condemned the exploitation of workers by the wealthy robber barons and business monopolies of her day. Those who miss her statements advocating for the fair treatment of workers are in danger of developing a lopsided understanding of White’s position on the issue of workers’ rights. One thing is clear from her writings: White wasn’t anti-union because she believed in unfettered, exploitative capitalism; instead, she decried unions for the violence and anarchy that often characterized the organized labor of her day, as well as the coercive methods and group-think mentality that is often a part of labor unions.
For example, in 1902 she wrote that those who “claim to be the children of God are in no case to bind up with the labor unions that are formed or that shall be formed.”Yet only a paragraph earlier, echoing the prophets of Scripture, she also rebuked rich men who oppressed the poor:
“How long will the Lord suffer oppression of the poor that rich men may hoard wealth? These men are heaping together treasures for the last days. Their money is placed where it does no one any good. To add to their millions, they rob the poor, and the cries of the starving are no more to them than the barking of a dog. But the Lord marks every act of oppression. No cry of suffering is unheard by Him. Those who today are scheming to obtain more and more money, putting in operation plans that mean to the poor starvation, will in the last day stand face to face with their deeds of oppression and injustice.”
In some cases White’s use of the term unions makes sense only if understood to refer to the monopolistic trusts of her day, which more closely resemble today’s mega corporations. In 1903 she warned that “gigantic monopolies will be formed.Men will bind themselves together in unions. . . . A few men will combine to grasp all the means to be obtained in certain lines of business.” And she later noted that we should have “nothing to do with” the monopolistic trusts that were being formed in her day.
Ellen G. White and Social Equality
In fact, White understood that extreme economic inequality was a danger to any society. To her, the widening wealth gap was not just a social and economic problem but a spiritual problem as well.Referring to the biblical laws of Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15 that required the release of slaves and forgiveness of debts every seven years under the theocracy of ancient Israel, she wrote the following:
“The Lord would place a check upon the inordinate love of property and power. Great evils would result from the continued accumulation of wealth by one class, and the poverty and degradation of another. Without some restraint the power of the wealthy would become a monopoly, and the poor, though in every respect fully as worthy in God’s sight, would be regarded and treated as inferior to their more prosperous brethren. The sense of this oppression would arouse the passions of the poorer class. There would be a feeling of despair and desperation which would tend to demoralize society and open the door to crimes of every description. The regulations that God established were designed to promote social equality. The provisions of the sabbatical year and the jubilee would, in a great measure, set right that which during the interval had gone wrong in the social and political economy of the nation.”
It’s not hard to see why some have concluded that White would not have been opposed to legislation seeking to promote—as she put it, “social equality.” In another statement, she strongly condemned the “centralizing of wealth,” noting that it would be a major factor in future geopolitical strife and chaos.
To the extent that labor unions have, without resorting to violence or coercion, promoted fairness, better pay, and improved working conditions, their work should be commended. And to the extent that employers—corporate giants or otherwise—have demonstrated generosity, empathy, and equity toward their employees, they should be applauded.
A few years ago the Adventist Church articulated a balanced and thoughtful position statement on labor unions that synthesizes biblical principles, White’s admonitions, and the realities of our modern world. The entire statement is worth reading.Among other things, the statement notes that “in view of the wide variety of political, legal, and cultural situations it is impossible to offer specific recommendations that apply equally in every location. Biblical principles and spiritual values, however, provide a common foundation.”
Perhaps the most important of those biblical principles—one that can safely guide both employee and employer—is the axiom laid down by Jesus in the Gospels: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12, NIV). White was thinking of the golden rule when she wrote that a “religion that would lead us to be careless of human needs, sufferings, or rights, is a spurious religion. In slighting the claims of the poor, the suffering, and the sinful, we are proving ourselves traitors to Christ.” Thus, employers and laborers, rich or poor, who are followers of Jesus, are called to a much higher standard than any collective bargaining agreement can guarantee. And no matter what we may think of labor unions, we are to treat others as we would want them to treat us were our situations reversed.
Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31, 138 S.Ct. 2448 (2018).
Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, 431 U.S. 209 (1977).
Janus at 2499.
Ellen G. White letter 292, 1907, in Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases (Silver Spring, Md.: E. G. White Estate, 1990), vol. 4, p. 92.
Ellen G White letter 26, 1903, and letter 145, 1902.
https://thinkprogress.org/report-five-things-unions-have-done-for-all-americans-6379ca1779fe/ and https://www.history.com/topics/labor.
42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a) and 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j)
Doris McDaniel v. Essex International, Inc., A/k/a Essex Wire, and Lodge 982, International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, 571 F.2d 338 (6th Cir. 1978), and Anderson v. General Dynamics Convair Aerospace Division, 589 F.2d 397 (9th Cir. 1978).
Anderson at 402.
Bible texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Ellen G. White letter 201, 1902, in Manuscript Releases, vol. 4, p. 78.
Ellen G. White letter 26, 1903, in Manuscript Releases, vol. 4, p. 75.
Ellen G. White manuscript 71, 1903, in Manuscript Releases, vol. 4, p. 87.
Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1890, 1908), p. 534.
Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1903, 1952), p. 228.
Ellen G. White, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1956), p. 136.
Article Author: Stephen Allred
Stephen N. Allred writes from Yuba City, California.