Toward a “Protesting” Labor Ethic

A review of A New Protestant Labor Ethic at Work
by Ken Estey
Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press
ix and 150 pages
Paper. $14.00.
Reviewed by Wayne C. Stumme

[1] Recently the two Lutheran synods and seminary in my community joined with others to sponsor an impressive conference entitled “The State of Faith: Ethics at Work Conference.” Major presenters came exclusively from the corporate world, pastoral responders from the larger Lutheran congregations in the Twin Cities. To my knowledge, the urgent concerns of those workers whose lives are impacted daily by the decisions of these and other business leaders were represented inadequately or not at all. Perhaps that is not surprising, but it is embarrassing that such moral myopia still characterizes many who want to draw on the legacy of Luther.

[2] Then, while preparing this review, I received the October issue of the prestigious journal Theology Today. Its lead essays deal with the “Faith at Work Movement”, business ethics, the Christian calling to business life, theological and ethical reflections on “spheres of management”, advertising as a Christian vocation, and ministering to the business community. The introductory editorial by Ellen Charry observes that “recent Christian social concern has focused on class, gender, and racial interests. In the context of current cultural trends, it may be time to think of the Christian vocation as the ennoblement of others more broadly” (299). What is the role of the church in this reconfiguration of social concern? “Perhaps the immediate responsibility of the church to the business world is to help its Christians envision how their business and their spending might contribute to the ennoblement of our culture” (300).

[3] What does this “ennoblement” mean for the millions of workers (not for the managerial elites) who produce the goods and provide the services that this same culture demands and who regularly are denied their rights in the workplace?

[4] Again unsurprisingly, that question received little attention by these writers.


[5] This book takes a different tack. It is a vigorous repudiation of the starting point, vision, and conclusions of the dominant voices in the field of Christian business ethics. Ken Estey calls for a “labor ethic” that “highlights the positive possibilities of worker resistance and struggle against any circumstance, person, or institution that alienates individuals from themselves or separates people from each other in the workplace.” He therefore rejects recent Protestant “covenantal business ethics” and its emphasis on “mutuality, cooperation, common interests, and the sharing of power between labor and management.” Despite the appearance of fairness, he maintains, such an approach fails to take into account the existing pattern of sanctioned exploitation in the working world. “The interests of owners and managers trumps that of workers” (1,2).

[6] Estey offers as a case study the experience of workers at the Saturn Corporation in Spring Hill, Tennessee, a venture frequently cited by business ethicists as a model of management and worker cooperation. General Motors and the United Auto Workers created this partnership, hoping to overcome traditional adversarial relationships between management and labor in the process of developing quality and competitive automobiles. Numerous innovations, including the team concept of auto production, have led to lower costs, higher standards of productivity, and a significant share of the small car market. Estey spent some time at the Saturn complex where he interviewed workers and managers and reviewed Saturn’s defining Memorandum of Agreement and Guiding Principles. His conclusions: workers there have less control over the conditions of production than they had under traditional labor contract arrangements; the team approach sometimes leads to exploitation of workers; and the union has lost much of its power and effectiveness as the representative of the workers. Far from demonstrating the superiority of a covenantal to a contractual approach, Saturn remains “a capitalist corporation, and this very fact places severe limitations on the scope of the performance of its ideals, no matter how vociferously they are stated” (43).

[7] This and similar ventures lead Estey to the conclusion that the effort of Christian business ethicists to replace traditional contractual arrangements between employers and employees with some form of biblical covenantal norms is both misguided and harmful to the interests of workers. There is no assurance that corporations, the stronger partner, will adopt and abide by these ethical constructs. As for workers, “the universalization of such norms and the assumption that there is a God who continues to urge such relations upon workers is by no means a settled matter for the working class. In part, the solution is hard-nosed bargaining and the unreserved militancy of workers in defense of their interests”(66). Estey concludes that contemporary Protestant economic and business ethicists tend to ignore these realities and thus function as apologists for managerial interests.

[8] A notable exception to his generally negative appraisal of covenantal business ethicists is Stewart Herman, whose book Durable Goods: A Covenantal Ethic for Management and Employees (University of Notre Dame Press, 1997) is cited frequently. Herman, he acknowledges, takes seriously the experience of workers; his “covenantal realism” is an attempt to give the moral claims of management and workers relatively equal weight; he has a positive understanding of contracts as well as covenants; and his call for “self-binding activities” by both managers and workers echoes earlier Social Gospel ethicists. Estey also acknowledges that Herman has read labor history, an ignorance of which is apparent in many who work in this field. While the two have overlapping areas of understanding and agreement, Estey clearly sees his proposals as differing materially from those of Herman. One could suggest, however, that his own arguments could profit from closer attention to the exhaustively-researched, carefully-nuanced and more theologically sensitive presentation of Herman.

[9] The author’s chapter on the turbulent history of labor and capital in this country highlights the similarities between contemporary covenantal business thinkers and the views of earlier Protestant ethicists. Estey stresses once more that “the call for mutual accountability of unions and corporations is a fine ideal but does not speak to the unparalleled strength and brutality of successful corporate efforts to keep workforces docile and unaware of their rights” (92).

[10] Once again, the vast disparity in power between the two parties undermines the possibility of actual mutual accountability.

[11] Estey identifies “the issue of company unions or employer-sponsored representation plans versus independently organized trade unions (as) a vital historical question” (94). Earlier forms of company unions later were ruled illegal, he notes, but contemporary employee articipation programs – as urged by Christian covenantal ethicists – fail to offer adequate protection to workers and undermine their basic rights. While the current departure in some industries from an earlier top-down managerial style in favor of greater worker input and decision-making appears to foster a more cooperative relationship in the workplace, the reality is often different. “The neglect of the legal happenings on the shop floor is coupled with the failure to see that the implementation of a covenantal ethic along the lines proposed by enthusiasts of employee participation programs would seriously compromise the integrity of a labor union’s mission” (115). By thus neglecting the labor contractual aspect of workplace relationships, the practitioners of covenantal business ethics exhibit “an unacceptable and disturbing nonchalance toward the imbalance of power and privilege between labor and management. This is really the core problem with the proposals pertaining to cooperation between management and labor” (116).

[12] What, then, is the “labor ethic” that Estey proposes? He doubts whether covenantal business ethics is able to raise fundamental questions about capitalism itself as a mode of organizing economic life. Its “tacit assumption is that it is possible to wed capitalist business practices with the latest interpretations of principles such as love or justice” (120), terms he considers too abstract and “mystifying” . His response is sharply critical of this assumption.

[13] A labor ethic must urge the separation of workers and management in the interest of a more militant and effective movement of working people. A labor ethic must be “protesting”: that is, it must be “unapologetic about promoting the material interests of workers…(and) the positive dimensions of conflict for advancing the good of workers by a transformation of structural inequalities in the workplace” (121). Estey calls for a “social movement unionism” that must “repeatedly advocate the legitimacy and useful function of the modern labor union” and simultaneously contend for its democratic renewal. This movement further must engage workers elsewhere “in the common struggle against the predations of international capitalism” (133). Estey refuses to accept the present dominance of the global market system as unalterable or the final stage of human social development (cf. the views of Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, 1992).


[14] This is an important book despite its limitations. Both critical and polemical, Estey’s arguments are directed against two adversaries. The first is what he perceives as the continuing exploitation of workers by their employers; the second is the views of Christian ethicists whose advocacy of a “covenantal” approach to labor-management relations he judges to be misguided, harmful to workers, and reflecting an unacknowledged class bias. Positively, Estey argues for the decisive importance of militant unionism and, less extensively, for the development of a “protesting labor ethic.” While frequently using terms such as alienation, exploitation, worker militancy, workplace struggle, and conflict, Estey cannot be dismissed as simply indulging in the rhetoric of an outmoded and powerless socialism. His loyalties indeed lie with the democratic Left, but the language he employs also describes the actual experience of far too many working men and women in this country.

[15] Certainly there are aspects of Estey’s argument which invite informed criticism. He has read widely and summarizes with fairness the views of those he opposes. One senses, however, that he needs to test his conclusions against the broader spectrum of workers’ experience in American production and service industries. The often-desperate situation of many non-union and low-wage workers – including immigrants — is not addressed, although Estey seems to be aware of this omission. From the standpoint of Christian social ethics, there are even more fundamental questions. Even in his brief description of a “protesting” labor ethic, Estey fails to help his readers understand how a “new Protestant labor ethic” would ground its arguments both theologically and ethically.

[16] The issues of workplace conflict, use of worker power in the face of superior managerial power, the role of organized labor in securing workplace justice, the larger social goals of worker militancy, the relationship of worker efforts to political strategies for economic fairness, and the acceptance of a class-based struggle for workplace justice require serious and sustained reflection by Christian ethicists. That reflection is almost entirely lacking in Estey’s presentation, although he does not hesitate to call into question the adequacy of covenantal norms as advanced by other scholars. A “Protestant” labor ethic has yet to be written; one can anticipate that Estey – and others – will undertake that urgent task.

[17] What concerns does Estey place on the agenda of Christian ethicists who are ready to address the issues he has identified? First, his presentation raises the question of the social “captivity” of many Christian theological ethicists to dominant economic classes and ideologies, particularly the views and practices of business and corporate elites. Second, he demonstrates the failing of many ethicists to recognize, understand, and respond to the actual exploitation of many workers in this society. Third, he compels ethicists to come to terms with the harsh reality of persisting adversarial relations in our existing economic system. Fourth, he rejects the traditional liberal “top-down” approach to the amelioration of institutional injustice and urges change through the actions of unionized workers.

[18] Fifth, he urges attention to the need to achieve worker democracy as a necessary component of the struggle for systemic change in the present economy.

[19] For Estey and for us, the theological task remains. A labor ethic which bypasses the work of establishing the necessary theological grounding for its ethical reflections and conclusions will fail to sustain Christian support and participation. At the same time that failure will perpetuate our present tragic indifference to the plight of large numbers of American working people. There is a more hopeful alternative. Biblicly rooted in the scriptural justice traditions; eschatologically oriented in terms of both human limitations and possibilities in relation to God’s final purpose; Christologically focused with respect to God’s creating, reconciling, and redeeming activity: a Christian labor ethic can inform and strengthen our solidarity with the present victims of economic injustice. Surely the theologians and ethicists of the Church have been given such a responsibility in this time and place. Ken Estey deserves our gratitude for his powerful stimulus to our thinking and acting as we take up this urgent task.