You have probably seen the joke that has been circulating recently: A union worker, a member of the tea party, and a CEO are sitting at a table, on which is a plate with a dozen cookies. The CEO takes 11 cookies, then tells the tea partier, "Look out for that union guy; he wants a piece of your cookie."
This February, when Democratic state senators in Wisconsin sought to negotiate with Gov. Scott Walker over his plan to end the right of public workers to collectively bargain, Walker said he wouldn't talk to anyone. No one, that is, until he received a call from a man who identified himself as billionaire tea party underwriter David Koch -- but who was actually Ian Murphy, editor of an alternative news and opinion website. Walker admitted to his faux benefactor "Koch" his disdain for the workers and their supporters: "This is Madison, full of ’60s liberals; let 'em protest. It's not going to affect us."
In 2011, America is experiencing a class war in the original sense of that phrase: an economy where the economic burden is placed squarely on the backs of working-class and middle-income Americans. For the past decade, the richest fifth of the country has taken a bigger share of income than any time in the post-WWII era. This is the centralization of wealth that the prophet warns us of in Isaiah 5:7-8.
Such a trend can’t be maintained if unions are able to contest the invincibility of the wealthiest and most powerful members of society. So Ohio, Indiana, Minnesota, and other states have seen legislative efforts to decrease wages, roll back safety regulations, and eliminate collective bargaining. Gov. John Kasich of Ohio signed Senate Bill 5, a measure severely restricting the bargaining rights of 360,000 teachers, firefighters, nurses, and other public sector employees.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Walker preceded his attacks on public employees with a large tax cut for corporations; his budget problems are, in part, a crisis of his own creation.
The U.S. Congress is also getting into the ugly act. A provision buried in House Resolution 1167, a bill to increase work requirements and means-test eligibility for welfare programs, would make striking workers and their families ineligible to apply for food stamps. Parents, beware if you are concerned about workplace rights; your kids might go hungry.
Why now? In 2008, the labor movement and its allies hoped for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, an attempt to level the playing field so that workers could once again freely organize. Hopes faded quickly, and corporate forces retaliated, aiming to squeeze the life out of a dispirited workforce -- demonizing teachers, other public employees, and any other workers who have been able to maintain a level of common protection in the workplace.
Instead of creating a society where "we all do better when we all do better," as the late Sen. Paul Wellstone used to say, people like Koch prefer fiscal Darwinism. Some will benefit from this, but surely the most vulnerable will not, through no fault of their own.
Jesus, like Isaiah before him, knew that concentrations of wealth can destroy the community. His parables about olive trees and workers in the field demonstrated a savvy awareness of the time’s global economy, dominated by Rome. He was well aware of the commoditization of working people, and advocated on their behalf.
People of faith today must be just as keenly aware of the new global economy. Religious leaders -- both clergy and lay -- lived into this gospel awareness in Wisconsin. Even in the church, it is time to realize that "we are all Wisconsin."
Bob Hulteen is editor and executive director of the Metro Lutheran newspaper in Minneapolis-St. Paul.