Religious Voices Enter Wisconsin Union Debate

By Nicole Neroulias
Religion News Service

The pro-union rallies in Wisconsin have a retro feel to them -- particularly for people of faith.

Clergy and faith-based groups were historically on the front lines of the American labor movement, but priorities shifted with the rise of the religious right and the weakening of unions. In the Wisconsin protests over the governor's budget proposal to reduce collective-bargaining rights for teachers and other public-sector employees, however, religious voices have re-entered the fray.

Groups like Faith in Public Life and Interfaith Worker Justice have mobilized coalitions that include Protestants and Muslims, in addition to the Catholics and Jews that dominated pro-union efforts in previous generations. Clergy have led invocations and prayer vigils throughout Wisconsin, written letters and sent delegations to meet with Republican lawmakers. An Illinois church and synagogue even offered sanctuary to the 14 Democrat state senators who fled on Feb. 16 rather than vote on Gov. Scott Walker's bill. (None of them had turned up at the houses of worship, as of Feb. 23.)

Interfaith Worker Justice has compiled statements affirming the right to organize from more than a dozen denominations.

"We're making this a bigger issue than just the workers involved. We're making it a moral issue, and that it's more than just fighting over pensions," said Rabbi Renee Bauer, director of Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South Central Wisconsin. "We're hoping that if lawmakers hear from religious leaders, it'll help them have a change of heart."

While some conservative Christians have used biblical language to oppose labor demands, the traditional role of religion is to support the rights of workers, said Thomas C. Kohler, a Boston College professor of labor law.

"Catholics and Jews have always taken the notion of work as being far more than instrumental," he said. "As the rabbis taught, God starts creation, but humans are given the gift of completing it. Work is a holy thing."

David L. Gregory, executive director of the Center for Labor and Employment Law at St. John's University, agreed, said that the blurring of lines between social and fiscal conservatives has eroded some religious support for unions.

"Anybody identified with the Judeo-Christian tradition is making a commitment to social justice dimension, but it depends on whether they're operating primarily according to their faith or according to politics," Gregory said. "Many evangelicals have increasingly been moving to the right side of the political spectrum."

The religious-labor bond began to weaken during the Vietnam War and the civil rights conflicts of the 1960s, Kohler said. Among Catholics in particular, political efforts since then have focused on abortion and other "life issues," he said.

By the time Interfaith Worker Justice formed in 1996, the ties between religion and labor had all but unraveled, said Kim Bobo, the group's founder and executive director. But as the economic downturn has taken a toll on middle-class congregations, clergy have become more aware of the need to protect fair wages and benefits. Bobo said her Chicago-based group can mobilize those sentiments into action, in Wisconsin and other states considering union-busting budget measures.

"This attack is so vicious and so wrong that we're seeing people step forward to support workers, and it has galvanized people in the religious community," she said. "It's a huge resurgence."

Yet John Huebscher, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, said Catholic leaders have consistently maintained the church's commitment to labor and economic justice. For example, he said, in 2008, the conference published guidelines on "Dignity of Work & The
Rights of Workers."

In a Feb. 16 statement on the Wisconsin situation, Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee upheld the "legitimate rights of workers," citing both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict as supporters of unions.

"The bishops feel it's a teachable moment, with this kind of attention on the issue, to draw attention to Catholic teachings on the rights of workers," Huebscher said. "This statement reminded everybody that the Catholic tradition says that workers have rights, and those rights don't disappear in difficult economic times."

Gregory concluded that clergy are uniquely positioned to serve as mediators between labor leaders and Republicans -- in Wisconsin and across the country.

"People have to be willing to break bread together and be willing to talk to each other, with a rational conversation," he said. "Faith leaders can play a role here."