On Easter, churches lament losses in union fights
By: By Thomas J. Sheeran, Associated Press, Superior Telegram
CLEVELAND — Public-employee unions battling a spreading challenge to collective bargaining rights may no longer be able to count on the clout of a longtime ally — the nation's mainline churches.
In Ohio and Wisconsin, the collective bargaining debate energized lobbying by sympathetic bishops and pastors, but unions lost those fights. Church leaders now fret that the volatile debate over budget-cutting may expand to target programs aiding the needy.
The involvement of religious leaders highlighted the intersection between faith and the marketplace as policymakers debated union and spending issues woven into the fabric of American society.
As thousands of teachers, firefighters and other workers chanted and waved signs during statehouse protests, some pastors and bishops lobbied lawmakers, spoke at rallies and wrote letters in favor of public-employee rights to collective bargaining.
"Is there not another way to accomplish what is needed?" Methodist Bishop Linda Lee asked Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in a letter asking him to reconsider his collective bargaining bill.
Reflecting on the message of Holy Week, Lee said she was reminded of the need for mutual concern.
"What I would hope for is that people would be willing to stay at the table with each other until there's a way to agree on what is really best for all involved," she said. "We are all created in the image of God."
Under Ohio's law, 350,000 public workers can negotiate wages and certain work conditions — but not health care, sick time or pension benefits. Opponents now hope to ask voters whether to keep or overturn the measure. Wisconsin's law covers 175,000 workers, exempting police and firefighters, but is temporarily blocked by a court order.
Backers see the laws as necessary steps toward balancing state budgets, but some religious leaders, including Christian and Jewish clergy, spoke up against it. Some thought it was the opening round of budget-cutting that could trim state programs for the needy, including food, prescriptions and child-care aid.
The Roman Catholic Church has a long history of backing the rights of workers to join unions, and many mainline denominations were deeply involved in supporting the U.S. civil rights movement.
The collective bargaining debate has emerged in other states including Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, New Hampshire, Nevada, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
Alexander Lamis, political science professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said a lot of factors will determine how the collective bargaining debate plays out in other states, but church backing helps the unions.
"You almost have to take each legislative battle by itself, the configuration of power, but overall I think it's a great benefit to unions to be supported by organized religion," he said.
Church backing raises the collective bargaining issue to a moral level and "gives legitimacy to organized labor and that certainly helps," Lamis said.
John Russo, a Youngstown State University professor who researches labor issues, agreed. "It moves the issue away from raw economics to one of social, moral and ethical values," he said.
The budget-cutting collective bargaining fight energized religious leaders concerned about threats to programs for the poor, "the people who are most vulnerable in our society," said Roman Catholic Bishop Richard Lennon of Cleveland.
Lennon, a Boston native whose father, uncle and cousins worked in the police-firefighter ranks, said bishops tried to cast the debate in terms of social justice, particularly for the poor who might suffer in budget-cutting. "We do need to be focused on those things," he said.
The Interfaith Association of Central Ohio, an interreligious organization that promotes social justice, agreed, telling Ohio lawmakers they "should not advance Senate Bill 5 as a means to address budget deficits."
However, a group of evangelical pastors in Mount Vernon north of Columbus cited Scripture to endorse "the biblical principle of fiscal responsibility" and support Gov. John Kasich and others trying to close an $8 billion budget gap.
"Their job is to restore financial responsibility and stability to our great state, and it is ours to back them up with prayer," they said in a statement after the collective bargaining bill was signed.
In Wisconsin, the Muslim community spoke out against union restrictions, with the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations taking an active role, said Julia Shearson, executive director of the Cleveland chapter of CAIR-Ohio. She said Muslims are generally socially conservative but have religious values that support the right to bargain and fair pay for teachers and other public servants.
She said her group will try to energize members of its community to work on the ballot issue to overturn the Ohio law.
"We think there are other ways to solve the budget issues, not on the backs of the average working people," she said.
The conservative-leaning Ohio Christian Alliance took a neutral position on the collective bargaining bill and devoted its lobbying attention to anti-abortion measures, according to president Chris Long. He said many like-minded congregations did the same.
In Richmond, Va., Rabbi Ben Romer told a rally that anti-labor bills, cuts to programs that aid the poor and predatory corporate practices were an affront to Judeo-Christian teachings.
"I wonder what Jesus Christ would cut?" he asked.
Russo, the labor researcher, said the high-profile involvement of church leaders was more visible, in part, because of the intensity of feelings over the collective bargaining issue.
Such church-related legislative lobbying, while common, "often doesn't get a lot of attention," he said.
Russo testified against the bill for the Ohio Education Association. He said religious leaders supporting unions probably recognized the proposals "are going to affect the flock, the parishioners."
And sometimes the flock can be politically divided: Lennon got calls and letters questioning church involvement in a political debate.
Lee, whose mother was involved in the garment workers' union in clothing factories in Philadelphia and Cleveland, said most of those who contacted her appreciated her overture in Wisconsin. Others felt it was an inappropriate church involvement in politics.
Christopher Wolfe, professor emeritus at Marquette University and co-director of the Thomas International Center, a Catholic intellectual center, didn't detect intense lobbying involvement in Wisconsin by church leaders.
He said that may be due, in part, to split opinions within congregations.
Ohio state Rep. Todd McKenney, an Akron-area Republican and former pastor at The Chapel, a nondenominational congregation, felt wrenching tension over the state's GOP-led effort to limit workers' union rights.
He wanted to be responsible with taxpayer money but was hearing from upset teachers and police. He prayed about it and backed the bill.
On balance, he said, "I have a strong biblical ethic that we have to be accountable with people's money and we cannot continue to tax people who have less money available than they did before."
The nuanced intersection between faith and policy was underscored by John F. Kennedy when he told ministers in 1960 that he was "not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic."
Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, watched rallies on the collective-bargaining issue in Madison, Wis. He said religious leaders had a right to speak but felt it might be a waste of time.
"Some of us even think it's counterproductive to invoke a deity to solve these problems," he said.
Even among believers, it's sometimes hard to resolve a divisive issue.
"It's hard for us to know for sure where God is," McKenney said.