By Phil Haslanger
Feb. 15, 2011
In the midst of the thousands of people gathered on the Capitol Square on Tuesday was a small group holding up signs saying that people of faith support working people. They were invoking a deep stream in the major faith traditions that supports the efforts of working people to band together to defend their interests.
These streams draw on the biblical call for treating workers justly. They draw on the biblical notion of covenants that bind people to one another. They draw on the biblical teachings of people looking out for one another. These streams are deep within my own Christian tradition and they are what brought me to stand with other religious leaders in the midst of the crowd.
The gathering at the Square – inside and outside the State Capitol building – was to protest Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s fast-tracked proposal to effectively eliminate most collective bargaining for most state and local public employees.
There are immediate economic consequences for some 175,000 state and local workers if the Legislature adopts this plan. In one measure, those are the give and take of tough economic times. The more serious and long-term consequence, though, is abolishing the right of public workers to negotiate with their employers. And that’s at the heart of what brought religious leaders to these days of intense demonstrations.
No, Jesus did not say anything about the right to unionize. And yes, followers of Jesus and people in other faith traditions may well have differing views on the proper balance to be struck between employer and worker. No economic structure is perfect.
Within faith traditions, though, there is a consistent message of defending the rights of workers against those who would exploit them. In contemporary America, there is a history of Christian and Jewish leaders joining union organizers to make sure that individuals are protected from the economic and social forces that can overpower workers.
Yes, it is a little trickier with public employees, because they do not work for a profit-making entity. It is taxpayers that ultimately pay their wages and benefits. Ordinary taxpayers have taken quite a hit of late as the tax system has tilted more and more to reward the wealthiest individuals and corporate entities in our country. So there is less sympathy toward public employee unions than might otherwise be the case since other hard-pressed workers worry about their tax bills.
Yet as my colleague Rev. Curt Anderson, pastor at First Congregational United Church of Christ, told the crowd on Tuesday, a consistent theme in the Bible is that “it is the responsibility of those in power to make sure that all workers are treated fairly.” That would include the governor and lawmakers who hold power in Wisconsin.
It is worth remembering that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the night before he was assassinated, spoke to public employees - sanitation workers - in Memphis, Tenn. who were seeking a contract with the city. He invoked the great story of the Jewish people breaking the bonds of slavery in Egypt by their unity in the face of injustice.
“The issue is injustice,” King told the crowd gathered in a church. “The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants.”
But it is not just modern faith voices who speak about this. John Calvin, who lived in the 1500s in Switzerland, well before the formation of modern unions, described work as a calling from God to help build a better community but he also said that work should be wrapped in justice - safe working conditions, a living wage, and fair relations between employer and employee.
Those are some of things at risk in what Gov. Walker has proposed for public employees. My own denomination, the United Church of Christ, says that “Christians are called to accompany people wherever they are and especially through the rough places of their lives. So we must be in offices, factories, stores, farms, schools, health care facilities, and all the places where people work.”
So there I was with other religious leaders, standing with those on Square facing a particularly rough place in their work lives. I was there as a follower of Jesus who worked as a carpenter and who talked about treating others as we would like to be treated.
Or as the Jewish prophet Amos once said, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”