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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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The People Who Gave You Weekends

Last night I served as a vote count observer for the Chicago Teachers Union strike authorization vote.  I’m not eager for the Chicago teachers to go on strike in the fall. Few if any of them are, either.  But contract talks appear to be headed for confrontation with Mayor Rahm Emanuel clearly relishing his well-earned reputation for bare knuckled negotiations.  Allowing teachers the opportunity to decide whether to include a possible strike in their efforts to balance the power dynamics of negotiations is both wise and fair.  And, given the toxic atmosphere in the land over the whole idea of unions, having a few impartial observers on hand to watch the vote counting seemed only prudent lest opponents gain advantage by claiming unfair coercion by the union of their members.

Since Ronald Reagan killed the air traffic controllers union in 1981 conservatives have relished trashing and busting labor unions, usually with high powered and well paid law firms at their side advising clients how to intimidate organizing efforts or subvert NLRB mandates.  Meanwhile, liberals have offered at best tepid support, forgetting what unions did for many of their parents and grandparents, squeamish over union abuses and, lately, anxious about public employee pensions that governors and mayors negotiated years ago that may now prove to be unsustainable. Teachers voting last night had to navigate the tricky calculus of power and popularity, needing to level the contract negotiators’ playing field while maintaining the good will and support of students and their families.  They know that there is no groundswell of support for unions, especially after this week’s Wisconsin recall vote. They risk the wrath of neighbors if they go on strike; they risk loss of salary and benefits and, for many of them what is even worse, demeaning and distorted evaluation processes and debilitating class sizes if they don’t.

With the exception of statements by national church bodies and the determined engagement of organizations like Interfaith Worker Justice and Arise Chicaco, as well as some dedicated pastors, priests, and lay people, the confrontational tactics of labor unnerve most good church folk, and the naïve notion that managers and owners will be inherently benevolent resides in most of our pews.  We have forgotten Reinhold Niebuhr’s wisdom that love without the ability to exercise power is weak sentimentality.  We have so softened the rough edges of our doctrine of sin as to think far too highly of our likelihood to do the right thing without the law watching over our shoulders.

Self-interest may change this somewhat.  While the Great Recession has devastated many in the middle class, the financial decline of  middle class America began long before and tracks the decline in union membership from its high water mark in the 1950’s when 40 percent of American workers were covered by union contracts to today when unions represent only 12 percent of the labor force.  Unions have lost much of their capacity to serve as a countervailing force to corporations eager to maximize profits.  Indeed, one economist has calculated that the majority of increased corporate profits between 2000 and 2007 was the result of reductions in wages and benefits, and another economist has estimated that the decline of unions explains about 20 percent of today’s growing income gap (Joe Nocero, “Turning our Backs on Unions,” The New York Times, June 4, 2012).

The Chicago Teachers Union vote won’t rival the historic union events in Chicago history – the Haymarket Square riot in 1886, A. Philip Randolph’s organizing of the Pullman workers in the early 20th century, the police violence in the Republic Steel strike in 1937.  But as unions take it on the chin in place after place (and, yes, occasionally shoot themselves in the foot), the willingness to exercise unpopular power in defense of themselves and their profession is encouraging. To be perfectly honest, I don’t relish being part of a potential strike vote by teachers.  But I certainly don’t want to be complicit in the relentless erosion of workers’ rights or in the belief that the church is either indifferent or hostile to the plight of working people and their families.  Just because I have never been part of a union doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate their critical role promoting equity and justice in American economic life.  I love the bumper sticker that says, “Unions:  The people who brought you weekends.”  Many people today still don’t have weekends, or any semblance of them.  But for those of us who do, we best not take those weekends, or the unions that fought for them, for granted.

John H. Thomas

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