March 15, 2011

Bible and Newspaper #2

Recently, we have wrestled in various states surrounding Iowa, and now in our own state with the rights of workers. I watched the situation unfolding in Wisconsin over the last month and was appalled at how it has all turned out.

The United Methodist Church has had a long history of supporting labor reforms and the labor movement.  From advocating against child labor to supporting the improvement of working conditions for laborers to advocating passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act, we have been at the forefront of this issue from the very beginning.

Part of our support for all working people includes support for collective barganining.  This is our current position:
¶ 163 B) Collective Bargaining—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. From The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church - 2008. Copyright 2008 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.
Biblically, we come at our views of labor through a number of scriptures... beginning in the beginning. The creation of the Sabbath and the command to respect and honor the Sabbath was radical for its day - it was a counter to other nations that forced their laborers to work 7 days a week.  Time and space for rest, renewal and our spiritual relationships is a fundamental part of God's intention for creation and the people of God.

On Ash Wednesday last week, we read from Isaiah and remember that:
they also complain, 'Why do we fast and you don't look our way?  Why do we humble ourselves and you don't even notice?'

"Well, here's why: "The bottom line on your 'fast days' is profit. You drive your employees much too hard. You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight. You fast, but you swing a mean fist. The kind of fasting you do won't get your prayers off the ground. Do you think this is the kind of fast day I'm after:  a day to show off humility? To put on a pious long face  and parade around solemnly in black? Do you call that fasting,  a fast day that I, God, would like?

"This is the kind of fast day I'm after:  to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts. Isaiah 58:3-6, The Message
We have a parable where all people are paid what they need to survive that day, no matter how long or hard they have worked (Matthew 20:1-16) and we have numerous prophets and epistles and proverbs that talk about the relationship between the worker and their employer (1 Cor. 9:7-11, James 5:4, Deut. 24:14-15)

But there are also verses and sayings directed at the worker.  They must work hard, honestly, respecting those they work for and the task at hand (2 Thess. 3:10, Col. 3:23, Prov 12:11).

So how do we look at this situation in light of our tradition and our scriptures? 

I think my first response is that at times, workers have abused the system.  Sometimes workers have pushed to get more of what they want, rather than what they need. Yet, if we look at numbers and statistics being thrown around in Wisconsin.... well, there are so many numbers from so many sides that I don't even know what to believe.  Some talk about the burden on the tax payers, others talk about how all of the money that goes into the pensions and health benefits comes from the workers themselves in a salary deferrment agreement, and so it is actually budget neutral. 

Whatever the case, the public employee unions were in the end willing to compromise, lower their expectations, take the cuts to their benefits... but it didn't matter.  The collective bargaining was what the government wanted to strip.  And it did. As United Methodists, we clearly and unconditionally support the right of workers to organize and to bargain in good faith. That is now gone in the state of Wisconsin.

In Iowa, this issue is also before us. It has come up both in Governor Brandstad's Executive Order 69 which prohibits project labor agreements and in the House bill which limits the power of unions in layoff decisions.  These are slightly different ways of handling the problems of imbalance between the government and workers, but as we talk to our own legislators, and as we pray and think about these issues, keep the scriptures and our tradition in mind.  There are positive and negative implications for workers and for our lived reality together in both of these bills. 

At the core, we need to be mindful of the public interest, our debt load and budget - but balance that alongside the needs of the actual workers. If the PLA's cause our building projects inflate the costs, that is one thing, but if they ensure fair and good wages for the ones who are doing the work, that is another. Should they be mandated?  Should they be prohibited?  Should they be an option?  This is a conversation we need to have. Those who work, whether in the public or private sector, whether unionized or not, all contribute to our wellbeing.  Good wages help support the economy by putting more money in consumer's pockets. This is a balancing game... and our scriptures and tradition have some good advice about how we find the right balance.

Pray, read, and if you feel led, call your state representantive. As a citizen of this state, you have a voice... as a person of faith, you have something to say.

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