Bismillah. As a member of the UCU trade union, I took part in the UK public-sector strike on 30th November 2011. Some thoughts from a faith-based perspective:
Sheikh Abdal Hakim Murad (Tim Winter) once observed that the formation of trade unions was consistent with the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) about justice, including fair treatment of workers, e.g. the hadith, “Pay the wages of the labourer before his/her sweat dries.” The right to form trade unions is explicitly mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, most if not all of which is consistent with Islamic principles.
There is also the long, wonderful story in the Islamic hadith texts (Bukhari & Muslim, cf. Riyad al-Salihin) about the three men stuck in a cave who pray to God on the basis of previous excellent actions. One of the three men invested a worker’s uncollected wages and when the latter returned to collect these months or years later, his ex-employer pointed to a large amount of precious livestock, since the investment had been blessed with success. The ex-employee refused to accept this at first, thinking that his ex-employer was mocking him!
On the other hand, one might argue that strike action is a breach of contract, and therefore un-Islamic. Some employers and Tories might agree with this.
In a world of ideal workplace relations, there would be no need for trade unions and strike action, just as in an ideal world where all people behaved angelically, there would be no need for law or its enforcement. But since workers are often treated unjustly, a fair means of protecting their rights is an Islamic imperative, and a trade union is a good place to start.
I had a long chat with John Redwood MP, one of Maggie Thatcher’s influential advisors, around end-2007 or early 2008, when he gave a lecture at our university as a Visiting Professor. (His lecture praised Lord Nelson as a great British hero, and highlighted Tesco as a great British trading company. Whether one agrees with him or not, he was thoroughly reasonable to talk to.) I asked him about Maggie’s war on the trade unions, that I’d followed as a child via the daily BBC 9 O’Clock News during the miners’ strike. He replied that he wasn’t opposed to trade unions, but that he believed in freedom and was therefore opposed to “closed shop” unions, where all workers in a particular situation are obliged to join the union and do not have the choice to opt out.
This sounds logical enough, but I’ve come across a problem through experience: union members at our workplace took strike action a couple of times in the noughties, risking our jobs and careers, but each time the employers gave in and agreed higher pay rises with the unions. Thus, all our colleagues, including non-union members, benefited financially from the strike action without the associated risk. (I asked a union rep about this at the time: he said that the union would be writing to non-union colleagues, inviting them to donate the entire pay rise to charity. A worthy sentiment, but somehow I can’t see that happening across the board – it appears to be an impractical suggestion in real life.)
So, a closed-shop would appear to go against the principle of freedom (which Sheikh Gamal al-Banna, brother of the famous Hasan al-Banna, describes as one of the universal objectives or maqasid of Islamic law). But a closed-shop would also appear to be the only way in many situations of having a trade union at all. Note that UDHR 23(4) guarantees the right to join trade unions, whilst 20(2) prevents compulsory joining of any association. The Wikipedia entry on Trade Unions, at the time of writing this, has a useful section on closed shops, union shops, etc.
Whatever the situation, Muslims should be able to debate these issues based on real fiqh (understanding of faith in context), recognising that there are often competing factors on many sides of an argument, all involving benefits (masalih) and harms (mafasid). There is often no simple answer, no clear-cut sacred text (nass), no single political position that all Muslims are obliged to adopt, when it comes to life’s complicated issues. Any serious study of the classical Islamic jurisprudence of human relations (mu’amalat) proves this.
Trade-unionists in Muslim countries have been struggling for decades to defend workers’ rights, and have been particularly active in the Arab Spring. Many workers and trade-unionists have been unjustly sacked, harassed, imprisoned, tortured and even killed in the course of their struggles for justice. It is no exaggeration to say that such people fighting injustice are engaged in a sacred Jihad, and those who lose their lives in the process are martyrs (shuhada’).
There are a number of excellent campaigning groups and tools that help in this kind of Jihad. Amnesty International and similar organisations do great work, although of course people are free to disagree with aspects of their work or specific cases. LabourStart is another good place, and is also on Facebook. The IUF is more sector-specific, and at the time of writing, its top story is related to a Muslim country:
Supporting such work is pre-eminently from the Way of the Prophet (Sunnah): far, far more important than endless, hair-splitting about obscure issues of theology, jurisprudence and dress.
Thus, all these organisations try to work on behalf of those whom they see as oppressed, of whatever faith. Some Muslims wish to create “Islamic” groups to deal with such issues. Although well-intentioned, it may often be unwise and less effective in practice, especially in an increasingly-globalised world. It may well be better to pool resources and co-operate across faith divides in practical struggles for justice. The Prophet (peace be upon him) famously praised the Hilf al-Fudul, a treaty to help the oppressed that was agreed in pagan, pre-Islamic Arabia. This has also been the approach, to their credit, of groups like YM/ISB (from the 80’s) and, more recently, the City Circle.
It should also be remembered that perservering with negotiation, compromise and reconciliation should also be seen as a type of Jihad (Surah al-Anfal, the pro-Jihad 8th chapter of the Qur’an, mentions spoils of war as well as reconciliation in its opening verse.)
Please support such moral Jihads whenever possible: may Allah bless our endeavours!