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Church leaders defend collective bargaining


7:00 P.M. EST March 14, 2011

The Rev. Amanda Stein, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Madison, Wis., prays over the bread during a communion service held in the Wisconsin statehouse in Madison.  Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The Rev. Amanda Stein, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Madison, Wis., prays over the bread during a communion service held in the Wisconsin statehouse in Madison. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
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For the past three weeks, the Rev. Amanda Stein has joined with her congregants in multiple protests inside the Wisconsin statehouse on behalf of the state’s public workers.

And on March 10 the United Methodist pastor was at the capitol, along with tens of thousands of others, shortly before the state assembly approved a bill cutting bargaining rights for most government workers. Gov. Scott Walker, who championed the measure, signed the bill into law the next day.

“It is very disappointing and heart-breaking for so many people,” Stein said of the bill’s passage. “If they thought the crowds were going to go away, they were back in full force today… It is just really powerful the response people have.”

Such heightened passions aren’t limited to Wisconsin. 

As states struggle with budget shortfalls and high unemployment, similar legislative fights over the benefits and rights of unions are raging across the country. Many United Methodists, including bishops, are speaking out against efforts to curtail workers’ collective-bargaining rights.

Among them is Wisconsin Area Bishop Linda Lee, who in February sent a letter to the governor urging him to reconsider efforts to restrict public employees’ collective bargaining only to wages.

“I believe that people need to be able to have their voices heard,” Lee said in an interview. This legislation “looks like it would eliminate the possibility of people having a voice in their working conditions. …This seems to have such a possible long-term consequence that I think we should speak to it.”

Lee and other church members are pursuing a longstanding Methodist concern for fair wages and better working conditions that goes back to John Wesley.

Historic commitment

Wesley founded the Methodist movement in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, and he often spoke to the struggles of the emergent manufacturing workers and other laborers in his native England.

Bishop Linda Lee
Bishop Linda Lee
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“How many are there in this Christian country that toil, and labor, and sweat, and have it not at last, but struggle with weariness and hunger together?” Wesley pondered in one sermon. “Is it not worse for one, after a hard day’s labor, to come back to a poor, cold, dirty, uncomfortable lodging, and to find there not even the food which is needful to repair his wasted strength?”

Inspired in part by Wesley, Methodists were among the first supporters of the U.S. labor movement. In the early 20th century, The United Methodist Church’s predecessor denominations called for the principle of conciliation and arbitration in work disputes. Church members later were instrumental in passing federal work protections such as the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which limits barriers to private-sector unions and penalizes unfair work practices.

In the last century, union negotiations contributed to such widespread advances as the 40-hour workweek, paid holidays, health benefits as well as workplace safety measures. It’s this legacy that Americans celebrate each Labor Day.

Since 1968, the Book of Discipline — the denomination’s law book — has proclaimed support for “the right of all public and private employees and employers to organize for collective bargaining into unions and other groups of their own choosing.”

Polarizing debate

But individual United Methodists differ in their assessment of the Wisconsin law. 

The new law restricts collective bargaining to wages and limits raises to changes in the Consumer Price Index unless voters approve higher raises in a referendum. It ends the state’s collection of union dues from paychecks and requires most unions to hold votes annually to determine whether most workers still wish to be members. Firefighters and law-enforcement personnel are exempt from these changes.

Last month, top leaders of two of Wisconsin’s largest public-employee unions agreed to the financial concessions called for in the governor’s plan to help with the state’s $137 million budget deficit. But the unions have continued to fight against the cuts to collective bargaining.

“I think this has turned into an ideological battle between those who really want smaller government and lower taxes, and the people who are pushing for greater government services for people in need, for education and other things we do in the state,” said the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, senior pastor of Faith Community Church, a United Methodist congregation in Greenville, Wis. 

Lambrecht said he believes that, in general, people should have the right to bargain collectively. However, he worries that a power imbalance between public employees and local municipalities has resulted in favorable settlements for local government workers, which communities can no longer afford.

He would have preferred the legislature address this power imbalance with measures that stopped short of stripping most collective-bargaining rights and instead strengthened the state’s arbitration process.

The debate has been hard to talk about at church, he said, because people on both sides are part of his 250-member congregation.

Bishop Bruce R. Ough
Bishop Bruce R. Ough
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Lee empathizes with Lambrecht’s situation.  She recently visited a Wisconsin congregation where people at one table were praising the governor for reining in costs while at another table people were just as fervently lambasting him for hurting the state’s public schools. She expects other congregations across the Wisconsin Annual (regional) Conference are similarly divided.

“And yet they worship together,” she said. “So far, we’ve been able to do that, and I am grateful for that.”

Stein, the pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Madison, Wis., ministers in a slightly different context. More than of half the members in her 100-member congregation make their living as public employees.

They include public school teachers and University of Wisconsin professors, physicians and nurses. Even church members who are not part of public unions are worried about how Walker’s budget proposals will affect the state’s schools and other government services, she said. 

Stein, who is also a member of the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice, accepted the group’s invitation to lead a Sunday worship and communion service in the capitol rotunda for protesters and lawmakers alike. 

“I have my own political views, and yet, in studying the Scripture the night before I preached, I was really powerfully moved by the idea of the table and that mystic sense that draws us together,” she said. 

“No matter whether we’re union or non-union, a teacher or a firefighter, a public or private-sector employee, we are all welcome at that table, and we recognize God’s presence is there.”

Bigger than unions

In Ohio, the state senate has narrowly approved a bill that would also limit collective bargaining by state employees. But Ohio United Methodists are looking at more than just union rights as the Gov. John Kasich rolls out his budget proposal for the next fiscal year.

Bishop Bruce R. Ough of the West Ohio Conference joined with other Ohio faith leaders at a press conference March 10, where they outlined four values they hope will guide state budget decisions. Those principles are: Serve the common good, do no harm, share sacrifice in ways that protect the most vulnerable, and in everything, practice civility.

“No matter whether we’re union or non-union, a teacher or a firefighter, a public or private-sector employee, we are all welcome at that table, and we recognize God’s presence is there.”
— The Rev. Amanda Stein

Ough appreciates the dilemma state officials face with Ohio’s more than $7 billion budget deficit but is critical of efforts to break the public employees’ unions.

“Collective bargaining has allowed a lot of people to rise out of poverty into the middle class,” he said.

He has no doubt people will need to make sacrifices in wages and in government services, but he said the state needs to be willing “to appropriately tax individuals who make a lot of money so we are in a better position to fund those things that are essential to the population, including those workers.”

Complicated situations

Balancing state budgets is difficult, as Indiana State Sen. Patricia Miller can attest. Miller, a Republican, is also a member of Old Bethel United Methodist Church in Indianapolis.

In 2005, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels rescinded guaranteed collective bargaining for government employees. But, as happened in Wisconsin, Democratic legislators in Indiana have left their state for Illinois to prevent the quorums necessary to vote on budget measures they say are anti-worker. Private-sector unions also have organized mass protests at the Indiana statehouse.

Miller said her governor’s budget proposals are the best to bring her state to solvency, and she is sympathetic to the budget battles in nearby states.

“It’s my understanding that, in some cases, it is a matter of protecting taxpayers and returning the state to fiscal solvency by reining in public-employee pay and benefits that are putting a strain on their budgets,” she said.

Back in Wisconsin, Mark Saltzman — a middle-school band director and music teacher in Madison — said he is devastated that the collective-bargaining restrictions are now law. Now, he added, his school district could mandate 100 students in a classroom without bringing teachers to the table.

But he is comforted, that his congregation, Trinity United Methodist Church, and his denomination supports him.

“I don’t know how anybody goes through a crisis without faith,” he said.

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Kathy L. Gilbert, a multimedia reporter for young adult content, also contributed to this article.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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