Written by Gregg Brekke
As tensions over collective bargaining rights for unions and state workers escalate in locations around the country, UCC members and clergy have added their voices - along with declarations of the UCC's General Synod - decrying legislative efforts underway to strip workers of their negotiating power.
Hundreds of homemade placards dotted the Ohio Statehouse lawn March 1, each hoisted and waved energetically by a vocal and deeply concerned opponent of Ohio's version of such legislation, Senate Bill 5.
"I don't know when I've ever been in a crowd of people who have felt so totally thrown away," said Janice Resseger, UCC minister for public education and awareness, of the estimated 8,500 people gathered Columbus, Ohio, to protest a bill aimed at restricting collective bargaining.
Passage of the bill – similar to the high-profile bill being debated in Wisconsin and others throughout the country – would weaken legal protection for public employees such as police, firefighters and school teachers; prohibit public workers from striking; and might eliminate binding arbitration for some.
Proponents say passage will effectively address Ohio's massive budget shortfall.
Speaking to the crowd in Columbus, Resseger told of a friend who recently asked her, "What kind of society turns on its school teachers?"
"We also need to consider what kind of society turns on a wide range of its state and local public servants," said Resseger. "Not only school teachers, but also those who care for parks, collect our trash, maintain public records, drive school buses, protect and patrol our streets, put out fires, provide transportation for the disabled and elderly, plow the snow and fix water lines when they freeze."
"These people are woven into the fabric of our communities. They are us. It is a tragedy for us to undermine who we are as a society."
The UCC's 1997 General Synod declared "affirmation of the heritage of the United Church of Christ as an advocate for just, democratic, participatory and inclusive economic policies in both public and private sectors, including… the responsibility of workers to organize for collective bargaining with employers regarding wages, benefits, and working conditions, and the responsibility of employers to respect not only worker rights but also workers' dignity, and to create and maintain a climate conducive to the workers' autonomous decision to organize."
Issuing a pastoral letter concurrent with the protest, the Rev. Bob Molsberry, UCC Ohio Conference minister, wrote:
"Collective bargaining is how firefighters have been able to secure safety standards. Collective bargaining by teachers has secured classroom conditions such as reasonable class size and caseloads for public school counselors. Collective bargaining is how a basic salary floor has been established for school teachers, thereby establishing a climate to attract well-qualified professionals.
Molsberry wrote that reasonably well-compensated workers create more stable communities and do not rely as heavily on public services. "They can build assets and spend locally, and are better able to focus on and excel at their jobs."
In Madison, Wisc., the Rev. Curt Anderson – senior minister at First Congregational UCC and a board member of the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South Central Wisconsin – says the Bible is clear in its call to those in power to ensure that all workers are treated fairly.
"Today, a logical extension of that concern is that it is the right and responsibility of workers to organize and advocate for fair rights and living wages," Anderson is quoted as saying in the Feb. 23 edition of the Huffington Post web site.
"There is nothing fair about the governor of Wisconsin's proposal to virtually eliminate collective bargaining for public workers and unilaterally force public employees to start paying for health insurance and contributing to their pensions," added Anderson. "This has been proposed without consultation, without bargaining, without even any concept of shared sacrifice."
Two months into Gov. Scott Walker's term, a new poll shows Wisconsin voters are having regrets. Public Policy Polling says Walker would lose by 7 percentage points a rematch with his Democratic opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, if the election were held today. Walker won by 8 points in the November 2010 election.
* In Indiana, Republicans in the state senate on Feb. 23 agreed to kill a proposed "right-to-work" bill that would have reduced the power of unions in the state. "Presumably, it's off the table for good," said the Rev. Richard Clough, senior pastor of First Congregational UCC in Indianapolis. "But until the session ends, I don't know."
* Leaders in the Tennessee state House of Representatives are considering an amendment that would give local school boards the option of deciding whether to negotiate contracts with their teachers. The behind-the-scenes discussions are meant to smooth passage for a bill that would overturn the 1978 law that gave teachers the right to bargain with districts as a group.
Disagreement on front-burner issues is inevitable, but discontinuing dialogue is never an option, says Molsberry. "Issues such as Senate Bill 5 are too important not to debate. Our unity as Christians is based upon our oneness in Christ, not upon our agreement on any particular issue. Let's talk."
For more information, please visit <ucc.org/justice/worker-justice/unions/>.