The Common Good
March 2013

War on Workers

by Phil Haslanger | March 2013

Anti-labor laws undermine unions in the Midwest. Will faith communities rise to the challenge?

WITH A ONE-TWO punch, 2012 was bracketed by the speedy and unexpected adoption of so-called "right-to-work" laws to undermine labor unions in two Midwestern states—Indiana and Michigan. That was preceded in 2011 by other bad news for labor: frontal assaults on public employee unions in Wisconsin and in Ohio. The assault in Wisconsin succeeded despite the political firestorm it generated, but Ohio voters overrode the efforts of their governor and legislators to gut public-employee bargaining rights.

Yes, the labor wars are on full force in the Midwest—and they are challenging faith communities to dig back into their teachings about the dignity of work, the rights of workers, and the pursuit of justice.

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, retired auxiliary bishop of the Catholic archdiocese of Detroit, minced no words in his article for the Kalamazoo Gazette in mid-December. "Right-to-work laws go against everything we believe," he wrote. "At the core of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and all great religions are the values of dignity and respect, values from which economic justice and the right to organize can never be separated."

The phrase "right to work" sounds noble, but these laws are not about guaranteeing anyone meaningful employment. Instead, they prohibit union contracts with employers from requiring non-union employees—who benefit from the union's work negotiating wages and benefits—to pay dues in recognition of that fact.

The push for right-to-work laws is actually about undermining the power of unions, benefitting the owners, not the employees, of businesses. A lot of those owners, and their money, are lined up behind the push to expand right-to-work laws. In Michigan, the group "Americans for Prosperity," bankrolled by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, considered the right-to-work bill one of its two major priorities as it invested in candidates over the past few years and then in a final lobbying push in December. Another big funder was Amway co-founder Richard DeVos. The legislation itself was right out of the playbook of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is funded by the Kochs, Amway, and a broad array of corporate interests.

As President Obama told workers at Daimler's Detroit Diesel plant in Michigan last December, "What they're really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money." That's what makes this an issue for folks following Jesus.

While there has always been a strain in American Christianity uneasy with workers organizing for their rights, for more than a century Catholic bishops, priests, and theologians have developed a rich theological underpinning for workers' rights. So, too, has the social gospel movement in American Protestantism.

Actually, the roots of all this stretch back into the Hebrew scriptures. Moses led the Hebrew slaves to freedom. Hannah celebrated God raising up "the poor from the dust and the needy from the ash heap." Isaiah denounced those who "serve your own interest on your fast day and oppress all your workers." The gospel of Luke opens with Mary singing about lifting up the lowly. Jesus railed against those who use their wealth and power to exploit others. He called for a sense of solidarity based on love of God and love of neighbor.

All of this ought to put the followers of Jesus at the forefront of resisting the accelerating move to undermine the power of workers uniting together in the workplace.

The phrase "right to work" ought to mean what it sounds like: meaningful, gainful employment for all, not the undermining of the very organizations that have helped make workplaces safer and more rewarding.

Phil Haslanger is pastor of Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg, Wis., a suburb of Madison.

Image: Workers' rights poster, Tribalium / Shutterstock.com

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