Do you ever think about the dignity of work, and the humanity of workers? Christians have a powerful stake in this conversation. The saving gospel transforms all of our lives, including the way we work, we are employed, we employ. This article, “Productivity and Grace: Management and Labor at a Denver Manufacturer,” is about a Denver manufacturer whose leaders treat their employees with kindness and dignity. From Christianity Today‘s This Is Our City project, it’s an inspiring piece by Chris Horst, and I commend it to you. Much to chew on here.
Sandwiched between rail lines and a tire depot, the Blender Products factory hides in a quiet neighborhood in Denver. The nondescript warehouse looks from the outside as nondescript as most warehouses do. But the way Steve Hill and Jim Howey lead inside the building is unusual in an industry known for top-down hierarchies of management.
“The metal fabrication business is extremely cutthroat,” says Hill. “Workers are given a singular task, and maximum output is demanded. They’re simply a factor of production. As a general rule, they have no access to management. There is very little crossover between guys on the floor and guys in the offices.”
Hill and Howey aim to subvert the us-versus-them mentality. Many days they walk the shop floor, engaging their workers as peers. Employees on the floor are treated as importantly as the managers, undermining the adversarial culture simmering in many manufacturing businesses.
I am not one who would advocate for unions as a general rule. But as I read up on progressivism, the history of American labor, and the captains of industry–an ongoing reading project involves the Industrial Titans of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries–I am keenly aware of the way some manufacturers and industry leaders of the last couple centuries have failed to treat their workers with appropriate dignity. A figure like Andrew Carnegie, for example, shows us both the tremendous ingenuity of the capitalist and the shameful inhumanity every person is capable of. Carnegie built libraries for his workers, but they had precious little time by which to visit them.
Christians who believe in the rightness of the free market nonetheless must also be known for their application of the doctrine of the image of God to labor and capitalism. We don’t only care about making money in order to flourish domestically and societally (and globally); we also care about workers, people, those whom God has invested with meaning and purpose and talent. The Blender Products leaders, Steve Hill and Jim Howey, clearly get that. It’s beautiful to read their story along these lines.
With the above stated, don’t misread me. I’m fundamentally for big business (and medium and small businesses), I generally trust the free market, and I think it’s intellectually facile to think wealth and wealthy people are bad. The best program of social uplift I know of is one that involves marriage, hard work, and earning money, and there should be absolutely no shame in such things (contra what we are encouraged to feel today). But the Bible seems to be pretty clear about the need to be fair and even kind to others who need to earn money (see 1 Timothy 5:18).
In fact, let’s sharpen the point: Christian employers should be widely known for how well they treat their employees. Failure on this point is not a small matter. In the broader world and the political-cultural realm, we should be known not only for our belief in meaningful work and money-earning, but for our advocacy on behalf of the weak, including employees who are mistreated and who need appropriate representation. (By the way, for more resources on the goodness of work and much more, check out the Center for Faith and Work, affiliated with Redeemer Presbyterian Church of Manhattan–cool conference on this subject coming up in early November 2012.)
The image of God means that we can work, create, be entrepreneurs, be day laborers, be manufacturers, homemakers, bosses, ad consultants, teachers, and so much more. The gospel creates a love for such work in Jesus’s name, and a desire to bring others to the flourishing and spiritual life they can never find outside of the workplace of God, the kingdom of Christ.
Cross-posted from Owen's personal blog.