Tuesday, March 8, 2011

On Wisconsin: What I Saw in Madison

It will surely be a, if not the, defining moment of my time as a US-2 missionary with the United Methodist Church.

“Hey Joe—would you like to go to Madison?”

Within 3 hours of that initial invitation from the deputy director of Interfaith Worker Justice, my 2-year placement site organization, I was on the Kennedy Expressway leading out of Chicago, past O’Hare, through frozen countryside of Illinois and Wisconsin, toward the capital of Badger State and the revitalized labor movement. I didn’t have a map of Wisconsin with me, and I was driving with the promise that I would have a homestay ready for me when I arrived. I called my parents and a few different close friends that I didn’t know what I would be doing, but I was really, really excited to do it.

The next week was a true whirlwind of religion-labor organizing to support public sector unions in their fight to preserve their right to collectively bargain on behalf of their members. In case you’re not familiar with collective bargaining, it “consists of negotiations between an employer and a group of employees so as to determine the conditions of employment” (Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law school), which means that workers negotiate with their boss on things like pay, working conditions, health benefits, worker-management relations, etc. For those United Methodists reading this, the United Methodist Book of Discipline explicitly supports the right of workers to collectively bargain (¶. 163.B of the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church-2008). Most Christian denominations have similar statements of support—mainline Protestant, evangelical, and Roman Catholic.

I saw a lot of things that I will never forget, things that will shape my ideology, philosophy, and theology well past time at IWJ. Here are three things that stand out the most:

1.       Young people were the heart-beat

When I first walked up the hill that is crowned by the St. Peter’s Basilica-mimicking-Capitol, I only knew that I needed to see the place to understand the movement. I was told as much by CJ Hawking, director of Arise Chicago and de facto coordinator of IWJ efforts in Madison. I immediately saw a crowd of hundreds of people, some standing and other marching, in the sleeting darkness just after dusk.  They were mostly people more or less my age—20-somethings, the Millennials, the Echo-Boomers, that generation characterized by our unprecedented acceptance of the Other and our dumbfounding apathy. When I entered the building, the center of the poster-plastered rotunda, what some faith leaders would later call the “people’s cathedral”, there were young people in the center leading the chants, cheers, and songs.
                It would be easy to brush the college students off as simply letting off steam for the cause of the hour, but that’s not what I saw throughout the week. In closed meetings and in the rotunda I continually saw an amazingly strategic organization. Students and TA’s were keeping the grounds incredibly clean, constantly reminding each other that this was a PEACEFUL protest, and the cause was a lot bigger than them. The young people’s energy, dedication, and imagination provided the heartbeat that pumped life-blood into the rest of the movement.

2.       Union organizers were the brain

My head didn’t stop spinning from the time that I met up with CJ to the time that I left Madison the next Monday. My colleague shared the strategy that organizers from the biggest labor unions in the country—AFSCME, SEIU, UFCW, AFT, Teamsters, various trade unions, and others—had formulized in less than a week, and then it was time for work. They had transformed the second floor of a hotel a block away from the Capitol into a sort of mission control of meeting locations, war-rooms, and work spaces. From there the unions organized the mass rallies that numbered in the tens of thousands (up to 100,000 at the climax), the outreach efforts throughout the rest of the state, and media campaigns for public consumptions. I got tired just by taking a tour.
                Say what you may about unions, but I saw that unions work—HARD. Their energy had a singular purpose: to defeat this disastrous bill that would all but eliminate collective bargaining rights for public workers and destroy their unions. It was something to see.
                On a personal note, I also saw what I will not be. My call to ministry will surely include organizing, but I will not exclusively put my focus there. I was so exhausted by my time in Madison that it’s taken a good week to recover, which tells me that a career in organizing would not be sustainable for me. May God bless those folks who are lifers; we are in your debt.

3.       Solidarity stitched us all together

On Tuesday, the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South Central Wisconsin, the local IWJ affiliate in Madison, held a rally that drew at least 50 clergy and faith leaders from the area. We held prayers and declared that our faith traditions compelled us to act in support of these workers. Honestly, we probably talked too much, but hey—what do you expect from a bunch of preachers? What happened next I won’t forget.
                We organized ourselves behind the ICWJ banner and then marched with the chant “Show me what religion should look like! THIS is what religion should look like!” We went straight into the rotunda with various unionists cheering us on, many expressing their thanks for our presence. We slowly filed in and around the “drum circle” that the college students were keeping manned continuously. Then some young woman took up the chant with us, and the rotunda was filled voices united. The crowd quieted as a few religious leaders spoke for a few minutes. And then the firefighters arrived.
                I don’t know if there’s a group that galvanizes folks like firefighters. I remember how in the parades of my childhood we always looked forward to the big fire engines at the end, how we would cheer them on as sirens blared. There were no fire engines in capitol, but there were bagpipes and flags and men and women wearing helmets, suits, and boots. We had similar experiences when the police marched through the building. Yes, the police were part of the protests as well.
                On Sunday night, as a few hundred people waited for the authorities to forcibly clear the Capitol, I saw the clearest picture of solidarity yet. Hundreds of students, union members, professors, and faith leaders were crammed together on the 2nd floor of the rotunda, waiting to be arrested for deliberate civil disobedience. I was among them, and as the hours ticked by, we began to sing. We sang old standards like “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “We Shall Overcome”, but that wasn’t the best. One student struck up the chorus “Power to the people”, and then changed whose power we celebrated each time we sang the chorus. We celebrated students, teachers, steelworkers, priests, rabbis, firefighters, and police.

The fight is far from over in Wisconsin. There are also anti-worker bills in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and a number of other states. I already know that unions have flaws. I’ve worked with them, and I am a member of one currently. However, not since the Great Depression have we as a society needed labor unions more than now. In so many heartbreaking ways, we are a fractured society, grappling at each others’ throats in the midst of our shared pain and fear. This is not the Kingdom that Jesus declared.
                But this is my hope, dream, and promise given to me by my God: that if God can work through as fractured and as scarred an institution as the Church, then surely God can work through unions, community organizations, and even government. After all, they are all just made of people.
                And it is through people that the Holy Spirit works.

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