Wednesday, April 24, 2024

It’s Wednesday, April 24, 2024. 

I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Are Labor Unions Back in the Driver’s Seat? Volkswagen Labor Union Vote Raises Issue of Work in Our Lives and Worldview

We have the rush of headlines coming at us so fast sometimes we miss the opportunity to talk about some big picture issues from the Christian worldview, but today I want to take time and look at some of these because right now they are very, very much with us in the headlines, but other headlines are sometimes crying out for the bigger national attention. So one of the things we’re going to be talking about is the UAW, which is the United Auto Workers, scoring big in the question of unionization with a vote by employees from a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee. The big news here is that this is a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee, and the headline comes from the fact that 73% of the employees voting in this election on the matter of unionization, voted for the union.

Now, if this plant were located, say in Michigan, the news wouldn’t be nearly as big. This would not be headline news, but it would still make the news in one sense precisely because organized labor has faced so many losses over the course of the last 40 to 50 years. So one of the big stories in the American workforce has been that organized labor has been losing ground, and one of the reasons it’s been losing ground is because it had overreached so far, and quite frankly had created an elite of employees covered with union jobs. That development was keeping many others out from employment, and the bigger issue was just the fundamental changes that have taken place in the economy.

So you had foreign competition. You go back to the 1950s, Americans are basically buying their cars from General Motors, from Ford, from what was then American Motors. But by the time you fast-forward to the 1980s, you’re looking at a radically different world. You have a globalization taking place in terms of the economy, and so employees at a say Ford plant in Michigan are competing in terms of an economy with people who are living in South Korea, working for a South Korean manufacturer. And then over the course of say, the last 30 years, there has been a further complication when all of a sudden Hyundai is made right down the street. Volkswagen is made in Tennessee, Mercedes-Benz, BMW for that matter, Subaru. You are looking at American employees and American plants, but many of these plants are not in the north, which have been the backbone of the auto industry in the United States.

The heyday of the big three brands, the heyday of unionization, no, it is not by accident that many of these new factories, both of some of the legacy American brands and even more so of these global brands, they’ve ended up in the south, in the American south. You asked the question why? Well, it’s not because of the climate, it is because of the labor climate. It is because of the legal context and the cultural context, and that’s because many of these plants, if not virtually all of them, when they were established, were established as non-union workplaces.

Now as you look at a map of the United States and you look at labor unionization, it’s certainly true that there were union shops all over the south, but it’s also true that the unions had far more political clout and far more economic penetration, they represented far more of the workplace in the industrialized north rather than in the more agricultural south. Now, when you had the factories moving into the south, you had companies that were seeking to create a new economic reality, in a new post-industrial age by putting automobile factories, and other related factories in cities in the south. And that’s what makes this news just coming from recent days so big it is because this was a third effort by some employees at this VW plant in Tennessee to unionize. The first two had failed, but this one succeeded, and again, 73%, it exceeded overwhelmingly.

So almost immediately you’ve got political and economic factors that are being evaluated. You’ve got experts when it comes to the politics of the situation and those related to the economics of the situation, and they’re all asking the same question, and that is the south going to turn into the north when it comes to unionization? Even in the north, what you see is resurgent union power, for example, in the relation between the United Auto Workers and the current Democratic president of the United States, Joe Biden, Biden fancies himself as the friend of the working man when it comes to these labor unions, and you have a very tight relationship between the Biden administration and big labor in particular, the UAW. The UAW, a legacy brand in American labor, has been gaining recently under the leadership of Sean Fain. Sean Fain, by the way, we are told, had not even met President Joe Biden until recently, and now he’s even serving as a surrogate for Biden on the campaign trails. That tells you a whole lot about what’s happening on the cultural front here.

So the big question is this a sign of the future or is it a fluke? And either way, what does this mean for the American economy? I want to step back and say that is an important question, but according to the Christian worldview, the bigger issue here is the role of work in our lives and how we as Christians are to think these things through. So in terms of unionization, good thing or bad thing? Well over the course of American history, it has been both, to be honest. I think at one point there is no doubt that given the fact that workers were virtually without protections, there were no basic regulations coming from the administrative state. There wasn’t an administrative state of any size. Given the fact that much of business was unregulated, there’s no doubt that there were some corporations taking advantage of American labor.

Now, in Christian biblical terms, the big issue here is not what the Marxists would talk about in terms of the alienation of labor. No, the big issue for the biblical worldview would be exactly you find in Scripture and that is stealing a person’s labor is in effect the same thing as stealing money from him or her. So you’re looking at the fact that we’re talking about the theft, the theft of labor. The biblical principle that is so clear here is that there ought to be a righteous and just link between labor and reward. That is clear in the New Testament as it is clear in the Old Testament. Jesus, even in his parables, makes reference to this. So the worker should be worthy of his hire, something that’s explicit in the Old Testament and cited again in the New Testament.

So, the Christian worldview also reminds us that we are made to work, we’re not made not to work, we are made to work. Work is a part of how the creature glorifies the Creator. He made us able as human beings not just to work in the way that say beavers build a dam because after all they’re just doing what by instinct they are born to do. We are actually far beyond that in that we can self-consciously, made in God’s image, labor in such a way that we seek to glorify God with our labor and frankly, there’s a moral accountability here. Now, I’m not sure exactly what industrious beavers do to punish slacker beavers, but that’s quite different than what takes place in the human workforce where we all understand there are huge moral questions that are involved here.

If you go back to the early 20th century, there’s no doubt that labor unions played a very important role in American politics. But here’s the problem: When big labor became as big as it became, all the problems that were big in the economy, they became a part of the labor union picture as well. And this came with mob corruption, it came with all kinds of things, that also came with the political alliance of labor unions with the Democratic Party, which led by the way to a part of the alienation of labor from the Democratic Party in the 1970s precisely because you had blue collar workers at auto plants, for example, in states like Michigan and Wisconsin, and they weren’t going along with the Democratic Party falling increasingly into the hands of hippie leftists. So you had, for example, big labor not support the Democratic nominee when that nominee was George McGovern in 1972. Richard Nixon won his election in 1968, then overwhelming reelection in that 1972 election, with an incredible amount of support from union labor, union votes.

The same thing happened in a big way in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan, over then President Jimmy Carter, and then Jimmy Carter’s Vice President Walter Mondale. There’s no doubt that workers weren’t going with the cultural revolution. They were far more likely to go with the Republican candidate even if the Republican Party and big labor were largely alienated. And that just continued as a pattern until more recently the relationship between the Democratic Party and big labor has grown only stronger and quite frankly, big labor like other sectors of big society become increasingly politicized on the left. But there’s another huge thing that plays into this, and this is human freedom. So one of the things we need to recognize is that you can talk about red states and blue states, you can talk about northern states and southern states, eastern states and western states.

But one of the major divisions is between states that have right to work laws and states that do not. Which is to say in some of the old line states of huge historic labor influence, there is no right to work without joining the labor union. So you can have labor workplaces and if you’re going to work in that site, then you are going to be a member of the labor union, and you’re going to pay your labor dues whether you want to or not. Now, one of the reasons why many of these plants located in the south is because many places in the south, they did not have labor work sites. Which is to say that yes, there’s federal legislation that says how workers can organize and can eventually hold a vote and can vote to go labor. 

But the two complications are these: you have states that made that easier and harder in terms of policies and legislation. You also had states that even if there were to be a pro-labor vote did have right to work provision so that the union vote didn’t mean that everybody had to become a member of the union, pay their union dues and all the rest. But big labor has been very dissatisfied with that for a matter of decades. So there’s been an effort to try to reverse right to work law in states like Wisconsin or key battlegrounds in that effort. And you also have the labor unions, and in particular, the UAW running point here, seeking to unionize the south.

Now, here’s something else to recognize. When you look at a massive auto plant, say in the middle of Alabama or Mississippi, you have to ask the question, why is that plant there? Why is that plant not for example in Michigan or Minnesota or Ohio? And the answer is because of the economic reality that made it very attractive for this auto manufacturer to put that plant, say in the middle of farmland in the state of Alabama or Mississippi or the state of Kentucky. So for instance, you’ve got major installations in a state such as Kentucky, or such as these even further deep south states, and the reason they’re there is because there was an economic advantage to these manufacturers to put their plants there precisely because it was not going to be a union site.

Now, when those plants went in, let’s just say you put a plant in the middle of Alabama, if you put that plant in, and it doesn’t matter in this case whether you’re a domestic or a foreign car manufacturer, the likelihood is that you’re creating hundreds and hundreds of jobs that are going to pay not only very well, but are going to pay better than the prevailing wage in the area. Now, the unions came in and said, “You need to unionize because we can promise you even more.” And here’s something else we need to recognize: with the workers at this Volkswagen plant in Tennessee voting this way, there are big questions about whether this is going to spread throughout the south.

Now, I can just tell you what the result of this will be. It will be that these auto manufacturers will decide, “Well, if we’re going to put a plant somewhere in the United States and it’s not going to matter in terms of unionization where we put it, then we will put it in the place that will make the greatest economic sense for us.” I’m not saying that there will never again be a major new plant in the American south, if the unionization spreads. I can simply say that one of the major reasons why those plants have been there for the last couple of decades, that’s going to disappear, if this labor union vote is a sign of what takes place throughout the region.

Furthermore, in worldview terms, there’s something else going on here and that is that when you look at some of these votes, some of the employees are saying, “I think we can get more.” Now, the answer is it’s almost sure that you can get more. That by labor unionization, the labor union’s going to produce some marginally better situation. And as I say, I want to be intellectually honest. There have been times in American history where unions have played a very important role there, but right now we’re in an economy in which one of the big issues is where are the permanent jobs or at least the long-lasting jobs going to be in this society? And I’ll say it makes very little moral sense right now to make a bet that you can squeeze one job, and seek to make your situation better, without recognizing that this just might shut down the incentive for anyone else to build a plant here in this very same community or even in this state.

So it is rather revealing to hear some people say that their concern is just basically for themselves, and for the people who are working in this plant right now, if there are no future hires, then let those people worry about themselves. But at the same time, you’ve got southern governors who are all of a sudden saying, “Now, wait just a minute. If this happens and you remove an incentive for these companies to build plants and bring jobs to our state, then they’re not going to do so.” So you do have some huge worldview issues that are invoked here.

So this is something we’re going to have to watch, but we as Christians need to look not only at the facts and at the figures, we need to see not only the headlines, we need to ask ourselves the question, “What does this actually mean in biblical worldview terms about the meaning of work and how we are to live in this world and how we are to show the glory of God in our lives in this world?” That doesn’t mean that every question say union, yes or no is going to have a really clear, unambiguous, simple answer. Although, I think over time that answers become increasingly clear. But it does mean that our way of looking at this will have consequences. Our decisions will have consequences, and we as Christians need to recognize the consequences we’re worried about are not just about ourselves, but also our children and our children’s children. That too is a part of the biblical worldview.

Part II

Millennials are on a Collision Course with Reality about Retirement: Why the Math Isn’t Adding Up and the the Worldview Dimensions Loom

Now, that’s one dimension of how these issues arise in the news. I want to look at another one and to do this, I want to look at yesterday’s edition of USA Today, the front page of the money section headline, Millennials Want To Retire By 60. Then asking the question, can they afford to? Daniel de Visé is the reporter here on the story, and he’s telling us that surveys indicate research indicates that the average millennial hopes to retire somewhere around age 60, that was there in the headline. He begins by writing this, “The average millennial is 30 something, an age by which most of us are well versed in the ups and downs of financial life. It may come as a surprise then that the average millennial expects to retire before 60, a goal not many of us can afford to attain.”

Well, indeed, it’s absolutely true that not many workers can afford to retire at 60, but it turns out that the millennials who are aiming at a younger retirement age than those who are older, are actually saving less money and almost assuredly are going to be in a situation in which it isn’t even rational to think that the vast majority of them could retire at anything like 60. So you have a collision between some expectation and reality. Here, the numbers are this, “In a poll in February, YouGov asked millennials when they expected to retire the largest share, 30% chose the age range of 51 to 60. Another survey by Principal Financial found that the average millennial expects to retire at age 59.” That’s pretty astounding.

The obvious truth was spoken by Sam Nofzinger, identified as general manager of brokerage at an investment platform in New York known as Public, he said, “There’s a huge difference between wanting to retire at 55 and actually retiring at 55.” Now, it is tempting at this point to make light of the numbers because the numbers are pretty devastating. So for instance, take this, “One recent report from Northwestern Mutual found that millennials believe they will need 1.65 million to retire comfortably. To date however, millennials on average have amassed only $62,600 in retirement savings.” Just get to the bottom line in case you haven’t done the math quote, “That means a retirement gap of more than $1.5 million.” So in other words, they say they are going to need 1.65 million to retire comfortably by their definition, and yet they have saved far less than 10% of that.

Well, I’m not going to go further into the data because I think we see the big picture already. And frankly, this isn’t just about millennials. This is about millennials in the sense that the research is about millennials who say they want to retire by say age 60, but are frankly in no financial position to believe that that might be possible. But nonetheless, it’s about the issue of what we are made for and what retirement means and how that is to fit into life according to the Christian worldview. And I just want to go back to the fact that this can be a problem on the front end of life. Frankly, there are too many young adults who aren’t adulting, to use the bad English, but a very telling word. They’re simply not growing up, they’re not working.

God made us to work, and I speak particularly to the fact that God made us in his image and gave us an assignment. And in Scripture, this comes first of all in the fact that he gave to the man and the woman in the garden the mandate of dominion, which is to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and we are to work. We are to do things, we’re to exercise that dominion, and that does mean work. It means vocation. That was a key development during the Protestant Reformation where you had the Reformers say, “As it turns out, every single one of us should understand we have a vocation from God.” And Martin Luther, the great Reformer went so far as to say there are people who want to see as the Roman Catholic Church clearly taught that the main division is between those who are the spiritual, working in the priesthood or say monks in a monastery or nuns in a nunnery. And then there were the common people. Martin Luther said this. He said, “The milkmaid is just as called to her work as is…” I’ll use my language, the preacher of the word of God. 

So the Protestant Reformation dignified work and also made very clear the biblical principle that there is to be a tie between work and reward. That is to say labor and income, and that it is a good thing to build the community by exercising that dimension of the dominion that God has given to us. And that’s why people talk about the Protestant work ethic, and point to the United States as evidence of how the Protestant work ethic works. And there’s a reason why where you have an economy where the majority of people understood that adulthood is to be tied to constructive work in the society, there’s a reason why those societies work and other societies that have a much looser relationship between labor and reward, don’t work, and by don’t work, I mean literally don’t work.

Now, in one sense, what we’re talking about here is really only made possible in the modern age. We’re talking about a very modern picture in which people enter the workforce at a certain age, and what I mean by this being a new situation that’s historically contingent, just think about the fact that the majority of people, the majority of boys in particular, grew up to do what their dads did. If their father was a blacksmith, they became blacksmith. So much so, that this often became the surname by which a family was known. There wasn’t much economic mobility. People weren’t moving from one class to another. If you were a blacksmith, your son was a blacksmith. And furthermore, in an agrarian society, everybody worked on the farm, and by everybody eventually that meant everybody, mom, dad, the children, all put to work for the glory of God, in the context of making a farm work. We’re in a situation now in which in the industrialized age, in the age of a modern industrial or post-industrial economy, you have people going to work.

Now, there are huge issues here. For one thing, you have the basic question: is there a difference between men and women? That is one of the big issues. The biblical worldview answers pretty clearly, but our modern age has confused pretty pervasively. It raises other questions, what about children? Should they be put to work? Well, there was a very, very moral judgment made I think very consistent with biblical Christianity, so much so that the evangelical churches were on the front lines of arguing, that children should not be forced into labor. But now we have a situation in which I think we can understand, there needs to be some kind of correction because there are an awful lot of children who, quite honestly, in their late twenties or early thirties still aren’t working all that much.

Furthermore, I’m of a generation that can remember that as a teenager, I had my first job, and you know what? I learned very fast how the work ethic works. Robbing teenagers of that experience doesn’t help the society, and doesn’t help those individuals, which is why you look at a state like California just making now fast food restaurants pay $20 an hour basically that’s going to cut teenagers out, and I think that’s going to be a very dangerous thing for the entire society.

Part III

Every Christian Has a Vocation: The Importance of Work and Calling within the Christian Worldview

That then raises the question about retirement. After all this news story is one prompted by the fact that you have a majority, or at least a plurality of millennials saying that they want to retire by age 60. Is that right or is that wrong? Well, I’ll simply say this, it would be absolutely wrong to say from a Christian perspective that there is an age at which all of the sudden we’re just to expect to disengage from work. As a matter of fact, there’s nothing in the biblical worldview about retiring from making a contribution. Now, we understand this doesn’t mean you’re supposed to hold your job into your eighties or nineties. That’s not the point. What it does mean is that in the kingdom of Christ, we are to be deployed in some sense working for the glory of God and for the extension of the kingdom of Christ for the upbuilding of the church, regardless of our age.

Christians should understand that the question of retirement isn’t a question of just stopping work, and entering into a long period of leisure, it is taking advantage of the fact that we’re no longer tied to a specific job. We’re then freed to make a contribution in many other ways. It doesn’t mean that you expect a 70-year-old to work in the same context according to the same schedule, with the same expectations of a 40-old, much less a 20-year-old. It is to say, that in the kingdom of Christ, we recognize that we are all workers together in the fields of the Lord.

The sad thing about this USA Today article, about the millennials, and again, the millennials aren’t alone in this, this article just happens to single them out for their expectation. The expectation seems to be that leisure is what we are made for, and work is the imposition. The biblical worldview actually says the opposite. By the way, the biblical worldview does not say no to leisure. It’s the Christian worldview that understands that our leisure is also a part of what it means to live to the glory of God, and to seek the glory of God in all things. There is not only nothing wrong, there’s everything right with fishing in a creek, or enjoying a hobby, or doing any number of things that might reflect leisure.

But what leisure does not mean is the refutation of work. There’s something for all of us to do. There’s a vocation for all of us, and you know what? That vocation is not lesser, if it does mean milking the cow, as Luther said of the milkmaid and her calling. And we’re in a society in which quite frankly, growing up into work or failing to do so, seems to go right hand in hand with failing to grow up into other responsibilities as well, including marriage and parenthood.

And on the other side of that, let me point out that a parent’s job is absolutely never done. There are seasons of life, and there are blessings and challenges to every season of life, and I can say as a grandfather, and I’ll say this, with the complete support of my wife as a grandmother, there is nothing sweeter than being in the situation in which you see, that deployment at this stage of life as grandparents is even sweeter than we could have imagined. The idea that somehow all work means is an economy squeezing something out of us until we decide it’s not going to squeeze us anymore. The idea that that’s what life is all about, and that’s what work means, is just foreign to the biblical worldview.

I think Jesus speaks so powerfully to this in John 9 when he says, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day, night is coming when no man can work.” So until that final night comes, there is good work for all of us as Christians to do. That transforms the equation. It also changes the way we look at the headlines.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing. 

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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