Religious leaders voice support for Wisconsin unions

Late last night the Wisconsin State Assembly voted to strip most state employed union members of their collective bargaining ability. The measure now moves to the Senate and if a quorum can be found to pass it, it is expected to be signed by the governor.

Yesterday religious leaders from across the state and around the country came out in support of the Union members and in opposition to the legislatures' actions; Rabbi's and Catholic bishops in that state in particular.

"‘For years, the Jewish community has supported workers’ right to organize, to bargain collectively, and for other purposes,’ said Reform Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Madison, Wis. ‘These rights are now in danger in Wisconsin because of Gov. Walker’s proposal to eliminate collective-bargaining agreements with public sector employees.’

Walker’s action has galvanized the labor movement into protests nationwide. Up to 70,000 workers and their allies – some from as far away as Los Angeles – are sitting in inside the state capitol in Madison to show staunch opposition to his demands.

Similar protests have also erupted in other state capitals where GOP governors have proposed yanking workers’ rights, notably Ohio.

Blaire’s letter to Archbishop Jerome Listecki is important not only because it again puts the Catholic church squarely on the side of workers, but because Wisconsin has millions of Catholics – and Catholics are a large share of the U.S. labor movement."

More here. NB: Bishop Morlino, the RC bishop of Madison, has written that the actions of the legislature are morally neutral, so not all religious leaders are giving the unions unqualified support.

The Episcopal bishop of the Diocese of Milwaukee, The Rt. Rev. Steven Miller has written:

This past week we have also seen democracy at work in Wisconsin as thousands gathered in Madison in response to the Governor’s Budget Bill. Regardless of our individual positions on the bill before the Legislature and what steps are necessary to build a stronger and better Wisconsin, I believe we can all agree that our baptismal vow to “respect the dignity of every human being” is not served by a majority simply pushing through legislation because they have the votes necessary to do so. As Christians, it is our duty and call to make sure that everyone has a place at the table and every voice has the opportunity to be heard. Respecting the dignity of every human being requires taking the time to have honest and faithful conversation that respects the rights and freedoms of all.

We also are called to speak on behalf of the sick, the poor, the elderly, orphans, widows, and all those who live in the margins of our society. Matthew in his Gospel reminds us that in serving these we are serving the Lord Jesus himself. It would be a sin to balance our state budget on the backs of those who have the least.

As your bishop I ask you to do two things. First, contact your representatives and invite them to true leadership by taking the time to listen to the voices of all and provide a guarantee that the voices of all will be heard in the future. Secondly, pray for elected officials daily, by name. Leading is a difficult task that requires the prayer support of many. I know that I could not lead this diocese without the prayers of each of you.

David Simmons, an Episcopal priest in that diocese posted an explanation of his reasons for participating in a march on the capital building in support of the workers earlier this week:

The underlying, worrying problem for me is worker rights. I read a letter in the local paper the other day that said something to the effect of, “As a person in the private sector, I can’t fathom being able to bargain with my employer for benefits.” Why not? Why is there an underlying philosophical assumption that a corporation has the ability and right to set all terms of employment without any input from workers? While I agree that unions can become corrupt, so can corporations. The existence of unions creates some balance against the influence of corporations. Many have commented on how short-sighted modern corporate America is - more concerned with current stock price and quarterly earnings than long-term health. People bewail the fact that loyalty between company and employee has deteriorated. Yet when we talk about organized labor, some of those same people seem to think that there is no need for a counter-balance that represents the rights of workers. Do we really expect that the corporations that got us into the current financial mess are looking out for our best interests?

Even those workers who are not unionized benefit from the existence of unions. Many of our modern labor laws from child labor to minimum wage to mandated breaks stem from the legislative support of unions. Who do we expect will continue to push for labor laws in a rapidly-changing world if the unions are gone? Will the corporations do that simply out of good will when such laws hurt the short-term bottom line?

And while many suggest that public workers should not be unionized, I would think the unions would be even more important for them. The free market helps balance out the private sector a bit. A truly awful employer will (hopefully) lose good employees to a better company (although the example of Wal-Mart does not inspire hope). But if you want to be a teacher, you will be likely be employed by government. Public Unions ensure that there is some consistency for public employees despite the fact that the party in control is likely to change several times during their careers. In addition, the collective bargaining process is the way that teachers have some say in how classrooms are configured through class size, hours, etc.

CNN suggests here that this particular skirmish is part of a larger movement among governors to move more power for financial planning away from the Federal government and block grants and aid and into the hands of the state leaders.

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