God, Economic Justice, and the Madison Rotunda

So if I’m going to make the case that faith has relevance, I might as well throw myself into the Wisconsin fray, which has an awful lot in common with the Ohio fray, and is symptomatic of lots of frays both present and impending.

So let me step up to the plate and state outright that were I to be closer to Madison I’d be in the Rotunda with the protestors, precisely because of my faith, and I’d be booking a trip to Columbus too.

My faith compels me to write in favor of the protests against both the budget proposal by Walker and Senate Bill #5 in Ohio because both of these pieces of legislation favor the wealthy at the expense of those who have less.  I subscribe to the notion that Christians are to extend preferential treatment to those with less, that our policy decisions ought to begin and end with their concerns, and that we must speak out against power being rewarded with power.

While there are a myriad of dimensions to the question, here are the bloggable two….for the moment: Union-Busting and the Art of Red-Herring Budget-Balancing.

For all who have eyes to see and ears to hear, this bill is not about balancing the budget.  It is about busting unions.

Paul Krugman calls it:

In principle, every American citizen has an equal say in our political process.  In practice, of course, some of us are more equal than others.  Billionaires can field armies of lobbyists; they can finance think tanks that put the desired spin on policy issues; they can funnel cash to politicians with sympathetic views (as the Koch brothers did in the case of Mr. Walker).  On paper, we’re a one-person-one-vote nations; in reality, we’re more than a bit of an oligarchy, in which a handful of wealthy people dominate.

In a word, unions represent the threat that the common person (many of whom happen to be registered Democrats) can go up against PACs and Super PACs and Big Business too.

What self-respecting Republican governor would want that?

There are those, clearly, who disagree, such as CNN’s contributor John Avlon.  He writes that “the underlying problem” Walker is trying to address is “collective bargaining and union ‘check-offs’ that create a vicious cycle of taxpayer subsidized partisan politics and labor deals that pass the buck to the next generation.”

Could one not argue that tax-breaks for big business, the wealthy, and defense contracts, are not also “subsidized partisan politics,” not also “recycled money” that gets put back into the coffers of the politicians who vote in favor of these policies?

So there is truth in the critique, but abbreviated truth.

Rachel Maddow would enjoy visiting with Mr. Avlon.  In this piece (video here, excerpts here) she acknowledges that unions help the Democrats.  Here’s a brief commentary on that:

In 2008, the groups that spent the most money on elections that year were the Chamber of Commerce, the giant right-wing pac Freedoms Watch, the National Rifle Association, and, hey, wait, what are all those weird little initials? Oh, yes. Service Employees International Union. And the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the public employees union. In 2010, post Citizens United, 7 of the 10 top spending groups were all right wing. Chamber of Commerce, both the Karl Rove groups, Americans for Job Security. All of these right-wing groups. The only non-conservative groups that cracked the top ten were the public employees union, the SEIU, and the teachers union. That’s it. Unions are the only competition republicans have in electoral politics. Post Citizens United, conservatives look at this and they smell blood. I mean, compare this to ’08. They have knocked the unions down to sixth and seventh place. Without unions, essentially all of the big money and politics would be right-wing money. All of it. That is not hyperbole. All of it. Unions are the only players. They are the only fish of any size on the liberal side. This decides who wins elections and who loses them.

She goes on to make the case that (thanks to this recent Supreme Court decision, the partisan effects of which is illustrated here) Corporate America is in the pocket of the Republicans.

The only financial “heft” that the Democrats have is the Unions.

And the Republicans know it.

So there is a partisan piece to this, to be sure.

But from a faith perspective, the union issue is not about partisan politics, or rather, not fundamentally.

The union issue is about justice and equitable distribution of power.

To that end, it might be surprising to know that a number of Christian denominations have some opinion on, yes, unions.

I am highlighting only five Christian groups with official statements endorsing unions, their right to exist, and their right to collectively bargain.

Take the Roman Catholics.  In a 1986 document entitled Economic Justice for All, the U.S. Bishops wrote:

104. The Church fully supports the right of workers to form unions or other associations to secure their rights to fair wages and working conditions. This is a specific application of the more general right to associate. In the words of Pope John Paul II, “The experience of history teaches that organizations of this type are an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern industrial societies” [58]. Unions may also legitimately resort to strikes where this is the only available means to the justice owed to workers [59]. No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself. Therefore, we firmly oppose organized efforts, such as those regrettably now seen in this country, to break existing unions and prevent workers from organizing. Migrant agricultural workers today are particularly in need of the protection, including the right to organize and bargain collectively. U.S. labor law reform is needed to meet these problems as well as to provide more timely and effective remedies for unfair labor practices.

Yep.  Bishops like unions.

The points 105-108 explain why, 105 dealing with the “ruthless denial to organize” in “other countries,” although there has been a significant squelching of union organizing in large and proud U.S. companies like Wal-Mart, for example; 106 pointing out that their potential “collective power” could “contribute to the well-being of the whole community” (also noting that unions should therefore “avoid pressing demands whose fulfillment would damage the common good and the rights of more vulnerable members of society”); 107 calling attention to unions’ role in fighting discrimination…and also a word of caution that unions commit to this role more consistently; 108 noting that “the restrictions on the right to organize in many countries abroad make labor costs lower there, threaten American workers and their jobs, and lead to the exploitation of workers in these countries,” so that unions “can also help both their own members and workers in developing countries by increasing their international efforts.”

But Roman Catholics don’t have the Christian corner on union support!

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) states in its statement Economic Life: Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All that “We commit ourselves as a church to:”

honor the right of employees to organize for the sake of better working conditions and for workers to make free and informed decisions; encourage those who engage in collective bargaining to commit themselves to negotiated settlements, especially when participatory attempts at just working conditions fail; and discourage the permanent replacement of striking workers.

The Methodists speak directly to collective bargaining here:

Collective Bargaining—We support the right of all public and private employees and employers to organize for collective bargaining into unions and other groups of their own choosing. Further, we support the right of both parties to protection in so doing and their responsibility to bargain in good faith within the framework of the public interest.

In order that the rights of all members of the society may be maintained and promoted, we support innovative bargaining procedures that include representatives of the public interest in negotiation and settlement of labor-management contracts, including some that may lead to forms of judicial resolution of issues.

We reject the use of violence by either party during collective bargaining or any labor/management disagreement. We likewise reject the permanent replacement of a worker who engages in a lawful strike.

The Episcopal Church-USA agreed in 2006 that:

Resolved, That the 75th General Convention reaffirm the right of workers in the United States to organize and form unions. We especially affirm the right to organize and form unions for seasonal and migrant workers who historically have been deprived of those rights. We support the right to organize and form unions as a means to securing adequate wages, benefits, and safety conditions for all workers. We encourage all levels of the church to be informed about, and act accordingly, when rights of workers to associate is being jeopardized. We commend the work of Interfaith Worker Justice in calling upon our religious values in support of issues and campaigns that will improve wages, benefits, and working conditions for low-wage workers.

The American Baptists concluded in 1966, 1981, and 1990 that:

We reaffirm our position that workers have the right to organize by a free and democratic vote of the workers involved. This right of organization carries the responsibility of union leadership to protect the rights of workers, to guarantee each member an equal voice in the operation of its organization, and to produce just output labors for income received.

Additionally the same link highlights that in 1976 they claimed as their policy base that:

As American Baptists we declare the following rights to be basic human rights, and we will support programs and measures to assure these rights:

12. The right to organize into groups to bargain with structures or powerful persons, to seek redress of grievances or to promote particular concerns

For what it’s worth, Walker touted himself as a “preacher’s son” during his campaign, and he came out of this same American Baptist tradition.

Kasich, by the way, although averse to stating where exactly he lands in the Christian continuum, makes clear his connections to the Episcopalians and Roman Catholics.

So the point is, you see, that we’ve got some denominational union unity.

And all of the words of support come in the context of statements regarding economic justice.

And here is why:

An individual has very little power in the face of a corporation.

But collectively, there is some hope that there is a fairer shot at justice.

And collectively, it makes a difference.  Note this statistic (from an organization receiving funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) regarding states in which collective bargaining is illegal. Those states and their ranking on ACT/SAT scores are as follows: South Carolina -50th; North Carolina -49th; Georgia -48th; Texas -47th; and Virginia -44th

Wisconsin is currently ranked #2.  (Thanks to good friend and political wonk Tracey Sturgal for that succinct compare/contrast!).

Collective bargaining makes for collective good (a shout-out to the Roman Catholic Bishops and their Point 106 above!).

And Krugman makes the point that this union issue is related to class issues:

You don’t have to love unions, you don’t have to believe that their policy positions are always right, to recognize that they’re among the few influential players in our political system representing the interests of middle- and working-class Americans, as opposed to the wealthy. Indeed, if America has become more oligarchic and less democratic over the last 30 years — which it has — that’s to an important extent due to the decline of private-sector unions.

Unions provide a place of support for those who alone would be powerless, those who alone have little money, those who alone have little training in labor matters, those who alone have no time for the full-time work of advocacy, those who alone can not stand up for themselves in the way that one can when boosted by the collective support of others.

O.K.

But for the sake of argument, for fun, let’s pretend that Walker’s issue is really about the budget, and not about union-busting.

Walker garners support because he asserts that the budget crisis is so big, so desperate ($137 million this year and $3.6 billion through 2013) that the only option is to reduce teachers’ salaries, benefits, and unions.

Naturally, he refuses to negotiate.

It is worth mentioning that the unions will.

There’s no room, says Walker.  No other choices.  No other maneuvers.  Nada. Nichts. Nothing available at all. Hands-tiedness all around.

Except maybe raising taxes on folks who make over $200,000 annually?

According to Sam Pizzigati:

“The state top rate on income over that figure currently sits at 7.75 percent, a rate down substantially from the 11.4 percent Wisconsin top rate in effect throughout the 1970s. A hike in that 7.75 percent top rate to 10.95 percent — on income over $200,000 — would raise about $600 million a year…Walker, since taking office last month, has pandered to the rich. Once sworn in, he pushed into place $140 million in tax breaks that almost exclusively benefit the rich and corporations. The ultimate irony: These tax breaks for Wisconsin’s affluent created the $137 million deficit in this year’s budget that Walker is using to justify his demand for cutbacks in what Wisconsin public workers take home.”

Echoing Pizzigati, Rachel Maddow reiterates his $140 million tax break statistic in the link above, and notes the below:

Wisconsin is on track to have a budget surplus this year. I am not kidding. I’m quoting their own version of the congressional budget office, the state’s own nonpartisan assess the state’s finances agency. That agency said the month that the new Republican governor of Wisconsin was sworn in, last month, that the state was on track to have a $120 million budget surplus this year…

So the question that many Christians are raising is, Why offer money in the form of tax breaks to the wealthy and to large corporations while taking it away from the middle class, simultaneously taking away their power for collective bargaining against those in power?

And what is this business of threatening force against those who protest?

God has a habit, illustrated time and again in the Old and the New Testament, of calling people to economic justice.  God is, in short, preoccupied with the poor.  The theme of distributing wealth equitably so that, as the ELCA statement calls for, there be sustainable, sufficient livelihood for all.

Not some.

But all.

And while not everybody in the Rotunda is poor, they are more threatened than those getting Walker’s tax breaks.

And that is not right.

So I have my seatbelt on, and am prepared for the comments.  Have at it.

Peace,

Anna

13 Responses to “God, Economic Justice, and the Madison Rotunda”


  1. Kirsten Mebust says:

    Standing in solidarity with you, Anna.

  2. Cathy Larson says:

    Anna Madsen, lover of God, defender of the workers, thank you for speaking on this issue. We all, no matter what our political persuasion, are wiser for having read this. Some will disagree but I do not know on what ground they will do that.
    Blessings,

  3. Sarah says:

    This is slightly off topic, but bounces off of your blog post. Have you read this editorial in the Huffington Post?
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-chuck-currie/house-gop-grinding-the-fa_b_825622.html?ir=Politics

    • OMG says:

      Not before you sent it. Thanks for that!

      It’s a link from Rev. Chuck Currie of the UCC tradition, “House GOP Cuts are Theologically Immoral.”

  4. suzanne olson says:

    Love your insights as usual. Rachel Maddow remains the chick I’d switch for.

  5. Heidi says:

    This Ohio union member appreciates your words again, Anna.

  6. Parker J. Palmer says:

    From the Wisconsin State Capitol to South Dakota, a big “Right on!” as well as “Amen!” There’s just no getting around the fact that God favors economic justice—and justice, truth, and love in all things. Keep telling it like it is, Sister!

  7. Diane Roth says:

    There’s the very conservative Christian “Reconstructionist” (or something like that) movement that tries to make the case that God is totally against unions. had never heard of them until a couple of days ago when (I think)religion dispatches did a piece about it.

    Thanks for this. I never got into the class on omnipresence, either.

  8. Norma Stenslie says:

    Thank you ,Anna, for getting into the fray – it’s not easy for shy Scandinavians – I keep hoping my German side will get a little stronger. Happy to see that the ELCA made a statement supporting unions and good for the Rev. Chuck Currie! I grew up in the Congregational church, which is now a part of the UCC, and I appreciate his article! In my understanding of my Christian faith, supporting the rich at the expense of the poor does not compute no matter how you spin it. Wisconsin protesters, we love you!

  9. Jay Hornbacher says:

    As a member of two unions, I have heard — ad infinitum and ad nauseum — the argument that unions are being targeted because they have “overreached.” What hogwash! Such a point implies that the workers represented by unions are entitled to only a limited piece of the action, while businesses, corporations, and the wealthy have no limit to their reach. May the spirits of Isaiah, Amos, and Micah speak through all who are part of this protest, which number will include me, at noon on Saturday, February 26 on the steps of the Minnesota state capital in St. Paul. Join me there if you can!

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