In the struggle between labor and management, can both sides come out ahead—together?
How can bosses and employees work well together?
Many years ago, I experienced for myself a phenomenon that is an all-too-common problem in workplace relations between labor and management. I owned a small company, and decided that I would like to start profit-sharing with my employees as much as would be feasible. So, I rounded up an executive table and some chairs, and convened an employee meeting.
I opened the meeting by explaining that I had in mind a plan that would allow every employee to have a share in the company’s profits. As the meeting continued, however, the conversation turned to one benefit after another that the employees thought they deserved. The standard holidays off with pay? Of course. Health insurance and life insurance? Certainly. Additional time off for religious observances? OK. Then came the request for paid uniforms, and even paid lunches.
Before I knew it, the meeting had come and gone, and I realized that I had opened a proverbial “Pandora’s Box” in trying to accommodate my employees. A margin of profit still remained, but it was so small that I soon discovered that although I was taking fairly good care of my employees, I would be working for very little profit of my own.
I still have the table and chairs from that meeting, but the business failed in a few years when I could no longer afford to keep it going.
What went wrong? I call it the “lunch bucket theory.” Of course, few workers carry lunch buckets any longer, but that is my fictionalized term for the principle that the worker has an investment in the place to which he (or she) carries a lunch bucket. If you are part of the company, you are part of the team, and you deserve part of the profit.
Sadly, in our day, it is far too common for labor and management to try to exploit each other—even when doing so ultimately hurts the interests (and the profits) of both labor and management alike. What does the Bible have to say about all of this?
Scattered throughout Scripture are references to principles that apply to employers and employees. Both hold necessary and honorable positions. Consider: “Let as many bondservants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor” (1 Timothy 6:1). Laborers should treat their employers not just with respect, but with honor. And employers have a similar duty toward their workers. “Masters, give your bondservants what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven” (Colossians 4:1).
Today, the gap between management and labor has grown, even to the point of outright hostility in many cases. Many employers who could provide jobs are reluctant to do so, fearing that they will be taken advantage of, and that they will not be able to reap the profit that will sustain them and their business. In today’s economy, those who carry the lunch buckets often have far more influence than management over whether a company can be profitable. Yet management plays a vital role that cannot be neglected if labor is to prosper.
Consider the parable of the vineyard in Matthew 20. “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard” (v. 1). The landowner agreed to pay his workers a particular wage, as was his right (v. 15). Later in the day, he hired more workers, and at the end of the day he gave them the same payment as those hired earlier.
Scripture reminds us, “The laborer is worthy of his wages” (Luke 10:7). So, was the landowner overpaying his later hires? Or did he underpay the earlier hires? Instead of being grateful for their employment, recognizing the employer’s prerogative and the contract they had made to become part of his enterprise, the earlier hires “complained against the landowner” (Matthew 20:11).
Does that sound familiar even in today’s labor-management conflicts? As always, Scripture’s guidance is timeless. Not until we return to the values Jesus Christ taught—values that are found in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation—will we be able to experience peaceful labor-management relations.