Unions: Are We Agreed?

Joel Monka recently published a blog article on the union debate titled, "Umm, Hey, can we discuss this..." in which he cites several blog articles (mine among them) and an e-mail from the UUA Congregational Witness and Advocacy director asking people to join our UUA president in signing on to a group letter in support of the unions.  Joel concludes his post by stating in an update:
"But my primary point, the raison d'etre for this post, is that there is plenty of room for disagreement and need for debate on this issue- I don't want it declared a basic tenent of our religion until such debate has taken place. I don't want Boston taking a position on my behalf without such a debate. I don't want clergy out there declaring that support for the unions in Wisconsin is an extension of our faith, an inseperable part of our principles, until we have had that debate."
I think this is a good point, and worth examining.  My initial response was to agree. 

I myself had more trepidation posting on this subject than others because my individual church has taken no stand on the issue, and I had not researched our denomination's history on the subject.  I see my blog as a place to voice my particular argument (just as Monka also posts his argument), not as a voice for our denomination as a whole.  While I don't often disagree with our denomination's positions (one reason I am so happy to be a UU), if and when I do I feel free to write about it.  I think a clergy person making an argument for why something is an extension of our faith is part of the process.  Assume every blog post here begins with "IMO," in other words.  Similarly, Dan Harper's post, which Monka also cites, was making an argument for labor rights in what Harper was assuming was opposition to the larger UU culture.  And I would say to do this sort of thing, to draw attention to where our association needs to catch up and pay attention to, is very much in keeping with the role of the clergy. 
But that aside, surely a call from our UUA Congregational Witness and Advocacy office with our UUA President leading the charge indicates a stance our denomination has taken.  Monka writes, "I don't want Boston taking a position on my behalf without such a debate."  "Boston," of course, is understood here as UU-shorthand for "the Unitarian Universalist Association."  Have President Peter Morales and the UUA office jumped the gun and taken this stance without the support or direction of the congregations?  And, if so, is that okay?

For the first part, I would say that our president can easily take a stand on any issue that the General Assembly has taken a strong and established stand on.  That seems pretty clear.  What is our history on labor rights?  Well, it's not too clear.  "Economic Justice" as a broad category is something we've addressed often.  We've often made broad statements like this one from 1985: "That this Assembly endorses the principle that every person has an inherent and moral right to work at a meaningful wage, food, clothing and shelter."  Finding more specific statements is a little harder.  The 1997 General Resolution "Working for a Just Economic Community" urged us to work for "Reform of labor legislation and employment standards to provide greater protection for workers, including the right to organize and bargain collectively, protection from unsafe working conditions, and protection from unjust dismissal."  Most other statements we've made about collective bargaining were more specific to certain boycotts.  In the 2003 Statement of Conscience "Economic Globalization," we also said, "Countries are responsible for requiring foreign and domestic companies to pay fair taxes, ensure their workers a locally defined living wage, provide a healthy and safe work environment, and respect the right of their workers to bargain collectively in independent labor unions and to engage in strikes and other job actions when necessary. The standards of the International Labour Organization of the United Nations should be incorporated in all trade agreements."  Of course, we were talking about other countries.

I think the strongest argument for a statement on collective bargaining and unions for our denomination would rest on the fact that we've long used the UN's "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" as support for our arguments for what stands we do and do not take.  We've had specific declarations on supporting the United Nations, establishing the UU-UNO office, urging congregations to celebrate a UN Sunday, and so forth.  And the UN's "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" states in 23.4, "Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests."

I think it's arguable that the debate in Unitarian Universalism over collective bargaining has been had, and that unless we reverse some statements, the UUA President does have so free rein to make statements on this issue on behalf of our denomination.  It seems a reasonable interpretation, not just extension, of statements we have made to call for the support of workers to bargain collectively in unions.  

But if it were not the case that we have some established precedent here, then what of the UUA president's actions?  For better or worse, I think we have given our UUA president some pretty free rein to take social justice stances on behalf of the denomination.  It's an open question, I suppose, whether this is good or bad and whether or not we should tie his hands more.  After thought and examination, however, I have to conclude that I think UUA President Peter Morales is acting appropriately and in conjunction with established precedent. 

And, luckily, I also happen to agree with him. 


Joel Monka said…
Very good post! If I haven't mentioned it before, I always enjoy reading your blog, agree or not, because your posts are always well researched and well reasoned.

I would argue that our stances on this are unclear, bacause the issue is not collective bargaining per se, but specifically collective bargaining for public employees. When the UN Declaration On Human Rights was written, and when half our union positions were taken, not one state in the nation permitted collective bargaining for public employees- it seems it was kind of understood that it was different for the public sector. And as we did not protest Indiana revoking collective bargaining six years ago, and we're about to hold our GA in a state that does not permit collective bargaining for public employees, it can't have been that big an issue until just now.

But yes, there's plenty of room for disagreement about that, and I have no beef whatsoever with any statements of ministers speaking on their own behalf. But our Standing On The Side Of Love program goes out to the general public, and one minister's open letter is being promulgated by Huffington Post- and both make it sound like an official church position.
Bill Baar said…
For better or worse, I think we have given our UUA president some pretty free rein to take social justice stances on behalf of the denomination.

Where do you see this? He can speak for himself in Pastoral Letters. GA can speak for itself. I'm not certain where the authority is to speak on social justice on behalf of the Associated Congregations. And even if he does of sorts, as Sinkford did with his Akmanejad groveling, we're free to say not me and be just as good a UU as he.
Tom said…
I think the issue is not the content of the UUA's political opinions but the quickness and sanctimony with which they are expressed.

A casual reader of the UUA's website would conclude that UUism is not a real religion but some sort of political cult whose highest value is conformity to the opinions of the supreme leader.

Look at other religion's websites. They don't even have the leader's picture, let alone his/her opinions about politics.

If the UUA cared less about political conformity, it would be easier for our churches to attract new members.
Cynthia Landrum said…
@Bill -- I don't really have proof of that, but it's what I *think* or what seems to be the case. I'm thinking the UUA board adopted policy governance which tends to give the president a pretty free rein in that way, and that I don't see anything in the UUA bylaws that curtails his freedom to speak out/take stands. But I have no idea beyond this.
Cynthia Landrum said…
Hi Joel,

Thank you.

I thought your question posed was a good one, which is why I spent so much time on it. And I agree that the public union hasn't been specifically addressed, and that the union-supporting statements we've had are old ones that need updating in light of this nuance. I think in the absence of such statements, the UUA President probably has a pretty free rein, but I don't disagree that this needs to be further addressed/discussed, and I hope (and expect) it will be.

As for Standing on the Side of Love, I do think this issue goes beyond their real domain of identity-based oppressions, and I don't know that it's appropriate for their agency to be taking on all human rights or social justice issues. So I'm somewhat questioning of whether or not this fits under their banner.

As for Huffington Post or other statements to the press, what I do when I'm writing for my paper is tie what I'm saying either to a principle, to a GA resolution, or to a vote at my church. I think one should be clear about when one is expressing personal views and when one is speaking on behalf of the denomination. That's often hard to do, and I probably stretch it myself at times. Certainly the items I cite aren't the strongest of supports for an issue, especially given the issues you raise. And yet I would also still feel comfortable personally signing on to the open letter in the Huff Post. It's nowhere near as clear as our stand on same-sex marriage, certainly. So I think there's room for interpretation both ways, but because there's room for interpretation, one can also interpret it as us having made a stand, and so therefore I can't condemn Morales' actions, either.

How's that for a waffle-y answer? I thank you for raising the issue. It's a good one.
Cynthia Landrum said…
Hi Bill,

And even if he does of sorts, as Sinkford did with his Akmanejad groveling, we're free to say not me and be just as good a UU as he.

ABSOLUTELY. Always. Even the Principles are, of course, NOT a creed.
Bill Baar said…
The UUA site on governance says the Prez is spokesperson, and Rev Morales free and should take stands. However to take a stand for the Congregation is outside the role of a spokesperson I believe. To create stands for us, or to pretend there is consensus on a stand would be quite false speaking. For example, there was a huge majority for the Creating Peace SOC at GA, yet there are more than a handful of Pacifists and others opposed. To take a stand on Peace with the SOC saying it was the UUA Stand, I think would be quite false.
Cynthia Landrum said…
A reader of this blog on my RevCyn Facebook page linked to this statement on the issue from the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. -- http://www.pcusa.org/news/2011/3/3/stated-clerk-backs-public-employees-collective-bar/. Thought it might be interesting/informative to post it over here.
Cynthia Landrum said…
Thanks for pointing to the info on the governance page. For others, it says "He also acts as principal spokesperson and minister-at-large for the UUA." on the "President" page and "As chief executive officer, Rev. Peter Morales, UUA President, is responsible for the programs and administrative policies of the Association and is the Association's chief spokesperson." on the "Governance" page.

Bill, do you then think the President's statements on behalf of the UUA should be limited to issues on which we have consensus, rather than all those on which a majority voted? I suppose that's a noble position, but pretty impractical, IMO, with a bunch of ornery UUs. And it would leave us as a pretty milk-toast religion, I would think, in terms of our social justice stances. But I do understand there is a strong strain within our faith which would like for us to stay more out of the social justice sphere altogether. I'm clearly not in that boat, personally.

But I'm am certainly willing to concede that this is a more gray area, given the lack of direct statement in any of our passed SOCs and AIMs and the like regarding public unions. In the absence of having made that distinction, I tend to think Morales is still acting well with the "Chief Spokesperson" role. But I think it would be good of us to take up this question of support for public unions more directly at the next GA.
holyschmidt said…

What should the threshold for the president speaking out on an issue be, then, if a passed SOC is not enough? Just wondering.
Elz Curtiss said…
When people ask about the "purpose" of the UUA, it is "to support the congregations". When people ask the official name of the organization, I say (not that I agree with this) that it's the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

So it seems to me, in this time of scarce resources, that the President AND the Board ought to rein themselves in to that basic, ground floor functions. At a time when many of us are scaling back to basic responsibilities, and being asked to include our Fair Share and our pledges in that category, we need to see reciprocation.

At least, that is my humble opinion.
Paul Roche said…
Wow - great and thoughtful discussion - I wish we could have more of this kind of thoughtful discussion on this and other political issues in UU.

In general I think the hope for UU-ism is to stop acting like a political group and start promoting our saving religion. There are a LOT of moderates out there (60% of the Country?) whose lives could be changed by our religious message - but they are turned off by our reflexive far left-wing positions.

Paul Roche - Sterling VA
Cynthia Landrum said…
Hi Paul,
Thanks for joining in. I hear this point of view a lot, and I don't doubt that it's true that if we did not so actively promote a social gospel that our faith would attract more people. For me, the social gospel is so intrinsic to what our faith is that the idea of separating it out doesn't make sense to me. I'm interested, however, in hearing more from moderate and conservative UUs about what they value about our faith, what makes them UU.
Cynthia Landrum said…
I see your point. I'm a big-government liberal and a big-UUA UU, I guess. :)
Paul Roche - Sterling VA said…
Rev. Landrum,

Thanks for keeping the dialogue going on this important issue. I think there are lots of people out there like me who are "socially liberal" but "fiscally conservative" (gawd I hate these titles but they're all we have:-)

I think there needs to be room in our religion for people who (gasp) voted for a Republican as the lesser of two evils. There is a lot of talk in our movement about diversity and how it will be the solution for UUs this century.

Meanwhile we turn our backs on kindred spirits who could literally be saved by our religion because they think, for example, less government is better.



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