Book Review: Not Talking Union 

There is a certain irony when reviewing a book on the subject of unions and Mennonites. I would like to introduce you to Not Talking Union: An Oral History of North American Mennonites and Labour. This book is written by Janis Thiessen, an associate professor of history at the University of Winnipeg. Thiessen’s current research interests include the 20th century history of labour, business, and religion, as well as food history and oral history. She is currently writing a book on the business and social history of Canadian snack foods after the Second World War.

This book is an experiment in a different kind of labor history, one that examines the history of people who (for the most part) were not labor activists and investigates not the story of union members or unionized workplaces, but of people’s historically constructed attitudes toward unions. Additionally, this book is a contribution to growing scholarly efforts to bring labor historians and historians of religion into conversation -from the book’s Introduction

While it is true that Mennonites have traditionally avoided unions and have been connected with ideas of a rural existence, their society has made many adjustments as a result of urbanization and industrialization after 1945. Many of these changes were made at a time when the labor movement was gaining momentum. Some Mennonites elected to join unions as a result of demands from their employers. Others chose to work for fellow Mennonites hoping to avoid the labor issues pervasive in society. Unfortunately, many Mennonites discovered that working with individuals with whom they had a shared religious commitment did not mitigate workplace conflict.

A study of these Mennonites – united by transnational ties of ethnic and religious identity yet shaped, at times, in distinct ways by their differing geographic locations, immigration histories and ethnic origins, denominational ties, and class positions – provides insights into how and why the majority of North American Mennonites have rejected labor unions in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

One chapter of the book was of particular interest to me. This chapter discusses the circumstances surrounding four different individuals from the Mennonite Brethren Church who intentionally sought workplaces where they could integrate their faith in their work. Unfortunately, they each were denied this opportunity though each employer promised to provide such a setting.  Regretfully, two of the four were dismissed from employment. Anna’s story focused on her frustrations with the apparent inability to integrate her faith into her work. Barbara described frustration with her employer due to changes in religious beliefs and the resulting contradiction . Dan was dismissed from his employer, but this experience, while unpleasant at the time, resulted in the transformation of his religious beliefs. Clara discussed opportunities she had to connect her religious beliefs and her work, but these were cut short with a termination of employment.

Dan’s story of termination is unfortunately all too common in Christian organizations. He was courted for more than a year to serve as the leader of an organization affiliated with the Mennonite Brethren General Conference.  He passed on the job offer many times, however the board held firm telling him “the Holy Spirit wouldn’t release his name.” Dan thought and prayed about the job, discussing the position with the search committee for a year and a half. They felt the position was tailor-made for him. He ultimately accepted the position and worked there for four years. But he made suggestions on the future of the organization which were not well received. This started the process leading to the end of his employment. He describes this process as “disillusioning” and “the most wounding experience ever.” He and his family went on an overseas trip after the termination which afforded Dan many opportunities for reflection and introspection. This experience helped him to realize the central place fear and other’s opinions held in his Christianity. In the past he was motivated by guilt and now his focus is on God’s redemptive purpose in the world.

Thiessen notes, “Dan’s dismissal is, of course, not a unique example of how sincere efforts by employees to integrate their religious beliefs with their work experiences can result in serious consequences.” She notes how Mennonite religion professor Keith Graber Miller has recently advised Mennonite workers:  “When Christians find themselves in work that constrains the express of their discipleship, for example, or that calls them to contribute to brokenness rather than healing, to strife rather than reconciliation, to exploitation rather than nurture, they should leave that place of work and express their vocation as disciples elsewhere.”

The author closes the book with a challenge. This book has provided a forum to share stories never before told and oftentimes uncomfortable to hear, but this is only the first step.

Mennonites and non-Mennonites alike will need to move from the role of listener to that of activist. Do we have the courage to leave our ‘safe, comfortable, but illusory retreat?

Story is a powerful educational tool, but religion scholar Marsha Hewitt rightly observes its limitations:

Stories have a way of making the hearers feel good, and can even offer the illusion that the story of the story in itself is enough to change the world. It isn’t. Narratives provide a safe, comfortable, but illusory retreat from the very dangerous, unpleasant activity of struggling against the injustices perpetrated by institutions that support us and with which we deeply identify. Narratives do not provide a safe space for telling the stories of injustice in the absence of structures that ensure a sustained and ongoing safety beyond the narrative space. No institution or community that exists in this world is free of politics, and it is politics that infuses the difficult realities of power and authority, whether we like it or not. One of the most difficult realizations for most Christians is that religion is political – political because it is practiced in the world, between people, not beyond it.

I recommend this book  to expose you to a different perspective on the faith and work movement; one that is nonetheless relevant and important.

(The title for the book was inspired by the song Talking Union by Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and Millard Lampell.)

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