What Religion Looks Like, Wisconsin Edition

“Tell me what religion looks like.”

This is what religion looks like!”

So chanted the 75 religious leaders who marched into Wisconsin’s Capitol in Madison on Tuesday, February 22, in support of the state workers who are opposing Governor Walker’s proposal to strip public sector workers of collective bargaining rights under the guise of balancing the budget. The workers have already agreed to many of the proposed salary and benefit reductions—they’re fighting to retain a voice in decisions through their unions and the collective bargaining process.

The proposals are so draconian and such clear violations of religious teachings in support of workers’ rights to organize and engage in collective bargaining that Wisconsin religious leaders across faith traditions have issued public statements, sent letters to the Governor and legislators, and are participating in rallies and public events.

The Rt. Rev. Steven A. Miller, Episcopal Bishop of Milwaukee, wrote to Episcopalians:

I believe we can all agree that our baptismal vow to “respect the dignity of every human being” is not served by a majority simply pushing through legislation because they have the votes necessary to do so. As Christians, it is our duty and call to make sure that everyone has a place at the table and every voice has the opportunity to be heard. Respecting the dignity of every human being requires taking the time to have honest and faithful conversation that respects the rights and freedom of all.

Archbishop Jerome Listecki, writing as President of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, wrote:

The church is well aware that difficult economic times call for hard choices and financial responsibility to further the common good. Our own dioceses and parishes have not been immune to the effects of the current economic difficulties. But hard times do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers.

The Reverend Bruce Burnside, Bishop of the South-Central Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, called upon members of the Wisconsin State Legislature to:

[A]ct with compassion and find solutions to the budget deficit bill that would not eliminate workers’ rights and medical care for the most vulnerable.

He quoted from a resolution by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) titled “Statement on Workers Rights,” which directed the ELCA to:

Commit itself to public policy advocacy and advocacy with corporations, businesses, congregations, this church, and church-related institutions to protect the rights of workers, support the collective-bargaining process, and protect the right to strike.

The John Knox Presbytery, which covers a portion of Wisconsin, issued the following statement:

The 1995 General Assembly statement specifically provides: Justice demands that social institutions guarantee all persons the opportunity to participate actively in economic decision making that affects them. All workers… have the right to choose to organize for the purposes of collective bargaining. Therefore, The Presbytery of John Knox, meeting on February 19, 2011 in Muscoda, Wisconsin, calls upon Governor Scott Walker and Wisconsin’s other elected representatives to enter into good-faith negotiations with Wisconsin’s public employee unions to deal with Wisconsin’s current budget issues and to respect the rights of all workers to collectively bargain for wages and benefits.

Bishop Linda Lee of the Wisconsin Conference of the United Methodist Church wrote to Governor Walker:

United Methodists state in our 2008 Book of Discipline the following: “We support the right of all public and private employees and employers to organize for collective bargaining into unions and other groups of their own choosing. Further, we support the right of both parties to protection in so doing and their responsibility to bargain in good faith within the framework of the public interest. In order that the rights of all members of the society may be maintained and promoted, we support innovative bargaining procedures that include representatives of the public interest in negotiation and settlement of labor-management contracts, including some that may lead to forms of judicial resolution of issues. We reject the use of violence by either party during collective bargaining or any labor/management disagreement. We likewise reject the permanent replacement of a worker who engages in a lawful strike.”

I share this with you because I understand the importance of balancing our state budget while continuing to provide the best services possible to our citizens. But because of my belief that far more is accomplished for the best interests of all those we serve when employers and employees work together, I am writing to ask you to reconsider your initiative which I believe would end the possibility for those who are government employees here in Wisconsin to negotiate settlement of labor and management disagreements.

Rev. David Moyer, the Wisconsin Conference Minister for the United Church of Christ wrote to pastors and churches:

We all know that sacrifices will have to be made. The question is how decision will be made and if those who will be faced with the greater burden of these sacrifices will be given the respect that offers them a place at the table as decisions are made… The right to negotiate is at the core of Wisconsin’s history, and tough economic times are not a moment to turn away from these essential rights that provide for fair and just decision-making.

Jewish mobilization is afoot as well. Rabbi Renée Bauer is the Director of the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South Central Wisconsin, which has been working around the clock coordinating the interfaith religious response in Madison. Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative rabbis representing all of the Jewish congregations in Madison have spoken out against Governor Walker’s legislation and are circulating a Letter “to Rabbinic Colleagues and Friends”:

As rabbis this an affront to our values—the Jewish mandate to protect workers, as well as the poor and needy among us… And it is an affront to our belief that these issues should be debated openly and fairly under public scrutiny.

Although Madison, Wisconsin seems to be “ground zero” in the fight for collective bargaining, similar anti-worker and anti-union bills have been introduced or proposed in approximately 30 state legislators. Given the groundswell of religious support, much of it from religious leaders who have not been particularly active in worker rights issues, it appears that right-wing forces have gone too far. Not all religious leaders are strong supporters of unions, but none believe workers rights should be decimated.

This is what religion looks like.