Faith-based progressives are asserting evangelicals are part of the movement to protect collective bargaining rights for public employee unions, but the nation’s largest evangelical group questions the connection.
Possibly prompted by Obama campaign organizers, a group of faith-based progressives have joined labor and civil rights leaders rallying to protect collective bargaining for public workers, a battle prominently displayed in Wisconsin between Republican Governor Scott Walker and state employee unions.
“We face increased attacks from right-wing, conservative leaders. They're after families, after labor organizations, after the right to organize, after civil rights. And a threat to any part of our coalition is a threat to all of us,” the Rev. Nelson Rivers III, vice president for Stakeholder Relations for the NAACP, asserted in a teleconference March 29 announcing IWF’s support.
And one progressive group, Interfaith Worker Justice, is asserting that evangelicals are part of the coalition.
"Wisconsin showed us that we are absolutely one. Governor Scott Walker and his corporate backers miscalculated and reignited a huge movement of people standing up for human dignity,” added Arlene Holt Baker, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO national board member of Interfaith Worker Justice.
But broader support in the Christian community for collective bargaining for public employees is in question. A consensus document on evangelical positions of “civic responsibility” endorsed by the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) asserts that the Bible “condemns gross disparities in opportunity and outcome that cause suffering and perpetuate poverty.”
While the document clearly intends to support caring for the poor, it may not go so far as to support protecting public workers’ right to collectively bargain, according to Galen Carey, NAE director of government affairs.
“The government is a God-given institution and needs to be able to carry out its duties. Certainly in order to do that you have to have workers and workers should be treated fairly,” Carey said in a phone interview. “I know there have been protests, but in general the public employees wouldn’t fall in the category of the poor. That would be our major concern.”
Interfaith Worker Justice is working to build as large a faith base as possible, coordinating with the progressive National Baptist Convention and local pastors to join with labor unions to hold advocacy events to peacefully demonstrate on the side of public workers. IWF is trying to engage faith leaders to observe April 4th protests in multiple cities including Denver, San Diego, Detroit and Milwaukee. In those cities, progressive ministers are pledging to hold rallies, prayer and candlelight vigils. In San Diego, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE-San Diego) will hold a theatrical reenactment of biblical passages around worker justice.
In Wisconsin, Walker and Republican lawmakers proposed and approved a bill ending collective bargaining rights for thousands of unionized state and local public workers. The bill’s approval means the state can force employees to pay for a larger portion of their benefits. The bill inspired masses of employees to storm the Madison capitol building. Democrats, the political minority in the state Senate, fled the state causing a political standstill and allowing protesters to reside in the building for several days.
Walker, an evangelical who defined his faith by the words of the hymn, "Trust and Obey" in a meeting with Christian businessmen, was quoted in the Tucson Citizen saying he was simply following an electoral mandate to fix Wisconsin's broken economy.
"The sentiment out there, at least in the Midwest from voters, was the status quo doesn't work," he said in an interview. "The unemployment rate's too high; the budgets are falling apart. You cannot continue down the same path."
For that reason, Walker said he is not swayed by the protests.
"If you're a good chief executive officer in a time of crisis, you can't worry about things. You've got to do what you said you were going to do," he said.
Even officials in predominately Democratic New York concede that a similar debate is headed their way. The legislature is debating cutting education spending by $1.3 billion. In New Hampshire, home of many independents, legislators are considering a collective bargaining rights bill to cut benefits and wages similar to the one approved in Wisconsin.
According to a 2011 survey by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 44 states and District of Columbia governed by both Democrats and Republicans are projecting budget shortfalls for 2012 fiscal year.
"Governors are focusing on consolidation, streamlining bureaucratic processes and controlling employee and pension costs, while at the same time doing as much as they can to spur job growth," stated John Thomasian, director of the National Governors’ Association Center for Best Practices.
Unions complain that states are fixing the budget on the backs of hard workers, many of whom are teachers. Education Weekly reveals that at least ten states are considering legislation to curtail or eliminate collective bargaining, dues deductions and strikes for public teachers. Four states have already passed that type of legislation.
Fiscal conservatives, critical of unions’ stronghold on state funded benefits, are criticizing President Barack Obama for providing tactical help from his political organization to Wisconsin organized labor groups. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said, "His political organization is colluding with special interest allies across the country to demagogue reform-minded governors who are making the tough choices that the president is avoiding."
AFL-CIO Political Director Karen Ackerman defended Obama in an Associated Press article saying, "If you take on middle-class people and try to solve the budget crises on their backs, there's a price to pay. Many thousands of people will be energized to fight back."
To fight back, unions such as the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union are planning to ban together in a nationwide protest entitled, “We Are One.” The united day of protest will fall on April 4, the day Martin Luther King, Jr., an advocate for worker rights late in his life, died.
In the Tuesday conference call, ministers and civil rights leaders pledged to join the unions in their efforts. Rev. Troy Jackson, pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, explained their concern for treatment of workers is based on their belief in a just God.
"We know that God is concerned about workers,” he said.