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I Was an Adventist Chaplain—and a Labor Union Representative


Robert[1] was in trouble. For some 20 years, he had provided clinical services to hospitalized patients. Now he was facing discipline for inattention to detail that was compromising patient care. I was a chaplain in the hospital where Robert was employed. He had been told that if he wanted help, he should come to me. He was confused by this advice, as he had never before asked a clergyperson for help.

I listened to his story and told him that I would be glad to help, but I might need information contained in his personal medical files. As a clinician, I had access to those records, but I would need his permission to share that information with management. Robert agreed and signed the documents for me to access his clinical records and represent him in the disciplinary action.

As I met with management, I shared with them that Robert was undergoing a loss of vision, which might ultimately lead to blindness. It was not a lack of attention to detail but a medical condition that had caused his failure to properly perform his duties. Acting on Robert’s behalf, I claimed his protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Management immediately agreed to suspend the disciplinary action while they gave further study to the situation.

Soon an agreement was reached. Robert was removed from clinical care, and he put in for immediate voluntary retirement. The disciplinary action was revoked, and Robert moved to retirement life on the Gulf Coast.

Yes, Robert could have informed his supervisor of his loss of vision. But he was not emotionally ready to admit that he was going blind. He needed me to help him come to grips with that reality and make rational plans for his future. In dealing with management, I brought something else to the table that Robert could not personally bring—I represented him on behalf of a federally chartered labor union. I could tell management that they had some statutory obligations to Robert and that they needed to work with me to achieve a solution that was in the best interests of both Robert and the patients whom he served.

In view of what Ellen White has said about labor unions, how could I, as a Seventh-day Adventist minister, become a labor union representative acting on behalf of the hospital employees?

A major portion of Ellen White’s statements about labor unions is related to end-time events, the establishment of our health care institutions, and living and working in the cities.[2] She clearly associated the labor unions of her day with violence.[3] Ellen White wrote much of this counsel around the turn of the 20th century, a time when there was notable labor violence. As one example, in the period between 1899 and 1925, the man known as Harry Orchard, acting on behalf of labor unions, is estimated to have killed between 17 and 26 people. His victims included Frank Steunenberg, the former governor of Idaho. Orchard’s unsuccessful attempts included attacks on the governor of Colorado and two Colorado Supreme Court justices.[4] Within the context of such violent events, the Ellen White’s view was understandable. To the list of her objections to labor union involvement, she added the idea that union members could not possibly keep God’s commandments.[5] I understand Ellen White to have believed that relations between labor unions and management were inherently conflicting in a manner that blunted the ability of the Christian to bear witness to the coming of the Lord. Of course, to her, it was more important not to do anything that would blunt one’s Christian witness.

As I reviewed Ellen White’s counsel on labor unions, the question to me was, Is it possible for me to associate with a labor union in a manner that does not blunt my Christian witness, allows me to keep the requirements of God, and permits me to not participate in violent activities? The first part of my answer came when I realized that US federal employee labor unions are a different class than the unions most commonly known. They cannot strike. Union representatives must be given official time for performing their duties and therefore receive their normal pay for the time that they spend on labor union work. The preamble to the 2011 Master Agreement that I used states that management and labor will cooperatively work together on a foundation of mutual trust, respect, and responsibility, in a manner that achieves the responsibility to provide quality service to our veterans.[6] Other employee protections exist for members of federal unions that may not apply to other union members.[7]

With this understanding, I agreed to have my name submitted to the executive board for a union leadership position.[8] On the basis of discussions with me, certain members felt that I could not fulfill my duties in the manner that they wanted me to perform. So, Tom, a national leader, was called in to talk with me and to make a recommendation to the executive board. I told him that I believed all people had the right to due process as well as the right to tell their story to management, and that I would commit to those rights without exception. I then told him that I intended to be recognized by all for bringing “honesty and integrity” to the process.

I then began an in-depth discussion with Tom as to the Adventist position toward labor unions, the boundaries that this would place on my involvement with the union, and the manner in which I intended to represent employees. At the end of 45 minutes, Tom looked at me and said, “Chaplain, this has been of immense informational value to me. I have learned a lot. But I cannot give this any more time. I am going to support you for this leadership position.” The executive board then gave me the position.

Early in my representational duties, the same people who had objected to me getting the position objected three times to the manner in which I was representing employees. Each time, Tom was called upon to review my work and to make a decision. Each time, he told the local president that he supported the manner in which I was representing the employees. From that time on, no one attempted to change the manner in which I handled cases. Upon my retirement, the local president said, “As you know, there were times when I did not agree with how you were representing an employee. But I let you do it your way, and every time, you proved that you were right.”

Management came to see me as a person who would assertively represent the employee, but as an “honest broker.” [9]  With this perception, I began to take more complex cases that might directly involve a decision by the hospital CEO. In one case involving a person who had been terminated from employment, I told management that the termination was in violation of the law. There was an attorney waiting in the wings to file a lawsuit and ask for a large cash settlement. But the employee would rather come back to work. I reached an agreement in which the employee gave up the right to file litigation and was rehired at an increase in pay.

Another time, I asked the CEO to give a fired employee a chance to tell her story of why she should be rehired. The CEO granted my request, which did not have to be granted. During the hearing, I stopped the process to tell the CEO that I did not write the statement and the employee was speaking from her heart. The CEO responded, “I know that Chaplain. I have read enough of your written material to know when you have written a document.” At the end of the hearing, the CEO turned to the HR representative and said, “Work out an agreement with the chaplain to rehire her and bring it to me for my signature. The employee was rehired in another position at a decrease in pay. But she had employment and could continue on toward retirement.

In representing employees, I worked in a much broader field than the area of discipline. I worked to get employees the training and mentoring that they needed to successfully perform their duties. I worked to see that they were classified appropriately and paid according to the work they did. In one of my early cases, management agreed to increase the salary of a low-paid employee by one dollar an hour because he was working beyond his job classification. In return for not requesting a retroactive increase in pay, management gave him a $1,000 performance award.

At the time of my retirement, I had worked for nine years representing employees in the name of a federal labor union. When I began this work, I felt that God was leading me in this direction. I remain convinced of that. As a result of my labor union position, I have worked closely with people that would otherwise never have entered my office. Each has been told that if I were to be successful in achieving what they wanted, they would have to tell the truth. If they did not tell the truth, management would know, and the figurative ax would fall on them.

In regular training sessions, sometimes over a period of several days, I interacted closely with national union leaders. I became well-known. If I were to tell them that I did not want to participate in some activity, I would immediately be told that I did not have to participate.

I believe that the counsel of Ellen White is valid for the time and circumstances in which she gave it. It may apply in some cases and to some labor unions today, but I do not believe it will fit every situation. As I understand the principles of her advice, they would not be applied to the situation I was in. I was often able to work with management to resolve situations to the benefit of all. If this failed, I had the ability to take the issue before an administrative law judge who would decide the issue. There were times when an agreement could not be reached and I took the case to mediation. Those cases resulted in settlements in as non-confrontational a manner as possible. Sometimes people just cannot agree. The methods that I used to come to an agreement are the methods of a civilized society that has chosen to not use the violent methods that Ellen White saw in her time. The methods that I used followed the biblical commands to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.

Society today has given rights to both employees and management. It has established methods by which disagreements may be resolved. In many cases, access to those methods is realistically restricted to labor union members, often due to the costs involved.[10]

Yes, Seventh-day Adventists will want to carefully consider their membership and participation in labor union activities. Where this can take place with neither compromise to their convictions nor infringement on their Christian witness, the denomination should not discourage them from such membership and participation.[11]


Notes & References:

[1] To protect the privacy of the individuals mentioned in this article, names and other identifying information have been changed.

[2] See Adventist Home, page 136; 7T, page 84; Maranatha, page 182; Letter 26, 1903; and 2 SM, Page 141ff.

[3] See The Upward Look, page 334.

[4] For the story of Orchard’s life and later conversion to Adventism, see James Nix’s article in the May 16, 2014, issue of The Adventist Review.

[5] See Maranatha, page 182; Letter 26, 1903 and Manuscript Release 129, page 179.

[6] Master Agreement Between the Department of Veterans Affairs and the American Federation of Government Employees, 2011, VA Pamphlet 05-68.

[7] Federal unions cannot use member money for political purposes. Any political contribution must be totally voluntarily and separate from union dues. On the grievance level, federal unions must represent, without charge, all members of the bargaining unit regardless of whether or not those people are members of the labor union.

[8] The original submission was for employee representational duties and some financial oversight as to how union spending was documented. At the end of the first year, I stepped down from the position of financial oversight and I only served in a representational duties from that time on.

[9] In one exceedingly complex case that involved alleged misconduct by a supervisor, I filed a document that exceeded 240 pages in length.

[10] I could take a case to the Merit System Protection or the National Labor Relations Board, at no cost to the union member. A non-union member would typically pay an attorney up front a fee of from five to ten thousand dollars and could face a potential legal bill of seventy to one hundred thousand dollars, which might not be recoverable.

[11] The official positon of the denomination is stated in North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, Religious Liberty Manual  (date unknown), page 27, HR 30144 Union Membership: “Seventh-day Adventist employees in secular workplaces are to follow the dictates of their consciences in matters of labor union membership.”


Gregory Matthews received a master’s of divinity from the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary and a master’s in counseling psychology from Chapman University. He served for 20 years in the US Army, with 18 of those years as a chaplain, and was an ordained pastor in the Potomac Conference. During his 20-year career at a VA hospital, he spent nine years as a steward for the labor union.

Photo illustration by Spectrum.

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