By Heath Carter
For those who have been following the labor situation in Wisconsin, there's an interesting report in today's Guardian entitled, "Finding Faith with Wisconsin's Pro-Worker Protesters." The author, Becky Garrison, cites a number of key religious leaders who have come out in vocal support of public-sector unions and goes on to cite a Reuter's report that the Tea Party contingent in the streets pales in comparison to the pro-labor forces. She concludes, "the visible lack of support for the Freedom Rally held on Saturday, 19 February in support of Walker sent a strong signal that the Tea Party may indeed be all sound and fury. But in the end, they signify nothing."
There is certainly some evidence to support Garrison's view. The Archbishop of Milwaukee, Jerome E Listecki, has issued a statement of opposition to the pending legislation. And so have a broad spectrum of other religious leaders in Madison, including for example the Church Council at First United Methodist, the Senior Minister at First Congregational UCC in Madison, and the Rabbi at Temple Beth El.
The diverse array of religious leaders that have mobilized against Governor Scott Walker's attempt to end public-sector collective bargaining in Wisconsin bespeaks a sea change in the relationship between religion and labor since the era that I spend much of my time in, 1865-1914. My research on this earlier period suggests that, to the extent there has been attitudinal transformation, we can attribute it in part to the agitation of Gilded Age and Progressive Era workers. Their movement was political in the broadest sense - encompassing not only fights for just wages and hours but also campaigns to reform religious authorities and institutions that allied themselves with capital.
All this being said, I think Garrison's Guardian piece far too sunny. She cites but too quickly moves on from Julie Ingersoll's sobering post over at Religion Dispatches. Moreover, in so breezily downplaying the Tea Party's reach Garrison seems to forget that, just three months ago, the state of Wisconsin elected Scott Walker to be its governor.
To have a fuller sense of the relationship between religion and labor in present-day Wisconsin one would need to pay close attention to the rhetoric that everyday people are using on both sides of the debate - who is marshaling religious language and arguments to support their view, and to what effect? (It would be interesting, for example, to study the language on signs that demonstrators on both sides are carrying). In addition, one would need to know more about what happens this weekend, in synagogues and churches around the state: will rabbis, priests, and ministers broach the labor dispute, and if so, what notes will they strike? Most interesting to me - and most difficult to recover - are the conversations that will happen over meals following those religious services: in the restaurants and kitchens where ordinary people will debate the meaning of religion for economic life. It is in those places and amongst those people that lasting change begins.