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It’s Time for More Leaders Like Olgha!

Governor Bruce Rauner of Illinois would like nothing more than to make Illinois a “right to work state,” joining conservative governors and their fellow travelers around the country in an effort to undermine the power of labor unions to bargain and advocate on behalf of workers.  The Chicago Tribune reported last week that Rauner and his wife reported $57 million in income for their 2014 taxes.  I don’t think these two facts are unrelated.

So-called “right to work” would end the requirement that all employees in a bargaining unit join the union that is representing them in contract negotiations.  Non-union workers would receive the benefits of union representation without having to bear any of the responsibility.  This would accomplish two goals:  It would weaken the union’s ability to aggressively represent its own workers, tilting power toward their public or private employer. Second, it would weaken organized labor’s ability to be politically active supporting candidates favorable to the needs of working men and women, public employees, teachers, and the like.  The winners?  Folk able to report millions in income.

A second tactic in the assault on labor is the move to privatize many public jobs – health care workers in public hospitals, custodians at airports, sanitation workers, replacing public school teachers with non-union charter school teachers, etc.  Outsourcing public jobs to private contractors reduces the work force of states, counties, and municipalities represented by public employee unions.  The privatized jobs are invariably non-union, with far lower salaries and benefits.

The Protestant mainline churches have tended to say the right things in national gatherings when it comes to unions and the right to organize.  But I don’t sense much passion in the pulpits or the pews.  Why?  Most Protestant mainline clergy have never been active members of the labor movement and haven’t experienced its importance in an intimate, personal way.  As a result, the culture and ethos of the labor movement feels distant, perhaps even alien to our clergy.  And our pews have not been filled with teamsters, plumbers, electricians, and the like, but rather with the owners of small businesses and mid to upper level corporate executives.  In other words, the people who tend to see unions either as adversaries or inconveniences.  This kind of Sunday audience doesn’t invite strong prophetic stances on the right to organize!

As a result, far too many congregations have either forgotten the historic struggles that brought dignity and a living wage to working women and men, or have taken at face value the Hollywood caricatures of the labor movement as violent and corrupt, or have accepted the ideology that unions are job killers, cause high taxes, and the like.

Last week Lydia and I were privileged to be present for the induction of United Church of Christ member Olgha Sierra Sandman to the Illinois Labor History Union Hall of Honor.  For her entire adult life Olgha has been a fierce advocate for organized labor, particularly the unions representing farm workers.  For many years she was a leader of the National Farm Worker Ministry and she has been a prophetic voice on behalf of working people across the church.  At her induction she spoke eloquently about how her commitment grows out of her Christian faith and is an expression of her devotion to the church and its mission.  It was wonderful to be there.  But the absence of any other Protestant leadership was noteworthy.

In 1973 the United Church of Christ recessed its General Synod for a day to send a delegation to march with César Chavez in California.  The church has supported numerous boycotts in support of farm workers since.  But in the pantheon of the labor movement’s history, there are few UCC names, and few names from our Protestant counterparts either.

Today the forty hour work week, decent middle class wages, retirement programs and health care benefits, weekends, safe, regulated work place environments and the like are all at risk.  All of these came to us not because employers offered them, but because the labor movement fought for them.  And all are under attack.

Progressive Protestant churches, inheritors of the Social Gospel movement of the early twentieth century, have maintained an important witness of behalf of many marginalized communities over the years.  Today that witness needs to more actively embrace working class men and women who are being relentlessly pushed back toward subsistence living.  Organized labor is not the only answer to income inequality, but it is a critical bulwark against the oligarchs who increasingly dominate the political life in this country. 

Olgha was introduced at the Hall of Honor event by David Koehler, a UCC minister, the son of a long time UCC leader, and currently a state senator in Illinois from Peoria.  In his introduction he paused to offer a passionate cry:  “Illinois will never be a right to work state!”  That cry didn’t spring from thin air, but from moral formation in the church and early years working and organizing with Olgha and her husband Bob.  I hope Senator Koehler is right.  But hoping won’t be enough if our churches are complacent or timid. 

Governors who report $57 million in annual income don’t depend on the labor movement for a living wage, decent working conditions, and security for their families.  In fact, more often than not much of that lavish wealth has been accumulated buying and “restructuring” companies by cutting employment, driving down wages and benefits, moving plants to non-union states or overseas, and the like.  If the prophetic traditions of the Hebrew prophets and of Jesus mean anything to us, we cannot let them win the day. 

                           John H. Thomas

                           October 29, 2015

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