Religion and Labor Protest in Wisconsin

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.


Paul M. said…
Thanks for drawing attention to an interesting article. But I don't know if I'd describe a Reform rabbi, a congregationalist minister, and the church council of a united methodist church as "a broad spectrum." They are both theologically and politically liberal. It's about as diverse a group as a Republican National Convention. (-;
Heath said…
Paul M: Thanks very much for the comment. It sounds as though we share in a skepticism that "official" religious opinions can be understood as more broadly representative.
Unknown said…
It is hard for me to imagine that there will be comments on this labor issue from pulpits on the right. Collective bargaining just doesn't have the theo-political punch of abortion. It seems likely, though, that many more liberal pastors/priests/rabbis might stake out a pro-labor position. But will they? And do they have the organizational structure and spirit to make an impact? I am not so sure about that.
Luke Harlow said…
Heath, thanks for this post. To Paul's comment above (and something your own research speaks to): what about the place of the Catholic Church here? Historically, there was a strong relationship between Catholicism and labor (especially in northern and midwestern states), and the archbishop's statement speaks to that. But is that still a broadly representative opinion?
Heath said…
Luke, it's a great and complicated question, which deserves it's own post and more. I think the short version of the story is that it's impossible to talk about "the" Catholic opinion on labor issues, whether now or back in the GA/PE. It's interesting that the Milwaukee archbishop cites Benedict, who in turn cites Rerum Novarum. This vein of Catholic social teaching is broadly pro-labor, though within strictly defined and evolving limits (almost always anti-socialist, for example; and even tactics like sympathetic strikes, boycotts, etc, are roundly denounced by church officials for decades before they are gradually accepted). Important here is the fact that there have always been major discrepancies between Vatican and even Archdiocesan pronouncements on the one hand, and local practice on the other. So I would say that the Milwaukee Archbishop's statement is representative of one important pole of Catholic opinion, but that there are lots of American Catholics who might also support Governor Walker's attempt to end public-sector collective bargaining.

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