Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Drops of water turn a mill, singly none...

I was fascinated to read Rev. Dan Harper's musing, "I’m fascinated by the way Unitarian Universalists pick and choose among politically liberal causes, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on why this might be so. Specifically, why don’t we support unionism (with the exception of Cesar Chavez’s farmworkers union, but then maybe that was more about immigrants than about unions)?"  My response:  We don't support unionism?  Somebody forgot to tell me this, apparently.  I thought we did.  But perhaps he's right about the larger UU culture--there is a classism we're constantly accusing ourselves of that I can forget from my social location here in Jackson, MI, in a more working-class church.  The colleagues I see posting on Facebook are full of union spirit right now.  Perhaps we bloggers are just slow to be posting about it.  Rev. James Ford just put out a nice post today saying, "Personally I blame the short term 'in it for me' philosophy that under girds libertarianism which is becoming the state religion here in the good old US of A, and what is increasingly looking like the dismantling of government by people who think it will liberate them, when in fact it will simply shake off the constraints on the rich and powerful."  A couple of years ago we invited a union leader to speak on unions at our church for Labor Day Sunday, and it was a memorable event that I'm sure will be repeated periodically.  I think I'll put it in the hopper for next year's JXN Community Forum series, or later this year if an opening exists when I return from sabbatical. 

On the other side, I have heard UUs talking negatively about unions. I've heard some call the UUMA a union with a negative tone--mostly because of the same reasons corporations are against unions--it costs more when we're organized.  This despite the truth of the comment Amy Zucker Morgenstern wrote in the comments on Dan's post saying, "I don’t think of the UUMA as a union. It doesn’t, for example, press us to refuse positions that are below fair compensation; we can undercut each other all we want."  Too true.

But rather than debate whether we do or don't support unions as a movement, let me write about what I think about unions.

Professor and theologian Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite nailed it when she wrote:
The rights of workers to join together and bargain collectively for better wages and working conditions is not just a civil right, it is a fundamental way we recognize that human beings have an inherent dignity and worth. This idea, that human dignity, what Christians call "the image of God," is what connects Christian moral reasoning and action for worker rights in the Social Gospel, the Civil Rights movement, in the Solidarity movement in Poland as seen in the work of John Paul II, and now, I believe, in a reawakened American labor movement. 
Read the whole article.  It's an important one.  And I think James Ford was right on in blaming a me-first culture for what we're seeing now from the Republicans and the amount of popular support for their position.

Over and over again, we hear arguments from the right which say, "People in unions are making more than their non-unionized counterparts.  This is unfair and needs to stop."  And people are buying into this ridiculous argument because of a deep individualism and selfishness that resents anybody who gets more than they do.  The better response to this argument would be to say, "Yes, people in unions are getting more out of the corporations and governments than their non-union counterparts.  This shows the power in collective bargaining.  Rather than tear that down, let's find ways to support and grow unions so that all workers can get these benefits."  How did the American people become convinced that it's in their interests to keep people from making a living wage?  How did we lose sight of the fact that the unions brought us the 40-hour work week, the vacation time and benefits we have, and the minimum wage? 

Yes, people in unions have better health insurance packages than most of the rest of us.  That's great for them.  How can we expand that model?  Too many people are crushed by health care debt, and now we want to increase that number?  Amazingly, the unions, with their currently good health care, advocated for health care reform, even though they were not the ones needing it.  They understand, in unions, that we're all related, that we need to care about each other, that the rising tide does lift all boats, that it takes many drops to turn a mill, singly none.  And we repay them by wanting to limit their benefits more, and take away the right to collectively bargain?

Americans need to wake up to what's being done in the name of budget emergencies and realize that it's a red herring thrown out there to tear down their rights, strip them of wages and benefits, and put more in the pockets of those who already have the most.  The budget emergency in Wisconsin, it's been shown, was created for just this purpose by taking a surplus budget and cutting corporate taxes and money coming in from the rich until a deficit resulted which then could be used to cut down the workers.

Thistlethwaite writes, "We need a new American populism that will fight for the rights of workers in this country as they are threatened yet again."  If our right to collective bargaining is stripped from us, we need to take this battle to the streets until we gain it back.  Bravo to my colleagues and friends in the streets of Madison.  I know that some Unitarian Universalists are with you in person and many more are with you in spirit.  This is the heart of our principles, the inherent worth and dignity of every person, at stake.

3 comments:

Vol-E said...

Up until quite recently, my opinion of unions was lukewarm at best. My dad belonged to the musicians' union for awhile, but quit when the dues became prohibitive. A couple of years after my graduation from high school, the teachers at my alma mater went on strike, and it got very ugly. I drove past a picket line that included a beloved choir director shaking his fist and literally foaming at the mouth. A year or so later I went back for a visit. I casually asked about a favorite Spanish teacher, and a colleague (who I know had been friendly) referred to her as "that scab," and reportedly was one of many who trashed that teacher's car and forced her into early retirement.

That was more or less my reference point for unions for a long time. Within the last five years or so, however, I've taken a second look. Like you, I live in a red, at-will work state, and am seeing first hand the rather patriarchal relationship between companies and workers, and the erosion of benefits and security that so many started taking for granted after the 1970s. Nowadays, the south looks like it's starting to revert back to the bad old days. Not just for workers, but also in the public schools. A great many UUs I know are homeschooling to protect their kids from religious bias. Segregation appears ready to rear its ugly head on a large scale. I could go on, but suffice it to say that it's a tense and scary time for progressives everywhere in the U.S.

Chip said...

Thanks for the Thistlethwaite link, and your thoughts. Our cluster discussed UUs and unions yesterday. Here is my two cents.

adelev said...

I too am surprised to learn that UUs don't support unions. I am pro-union and always have been.

Adele