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.