Monday, February 6, 2012

Crossroads of America: faith, labor, and "right-to-work" in Indiana

Most of the folks that I worked with in Indianapolis went through the day at an absolutely break-neck pace, but that was inside the political vortex that had engulfed the Indiana statehouse for nearly a year. Outside the vortex, I found a different pace and different perspective that perhaps was best encapsulated by a two-minute conversation with a custodian.

When my coworker and I explained our role in organizing faith-based opposition to Indiana’s “right-to-work” bill, the custodian grinned at us and said, “You know, right-to-work sounds really good, but if the politicians want it so badly, it can’t be that good.”

After several weeks of speaking with clergy, labor officials, juridical leaders, and lay members, no quote better voices the popular ambivalence to the so-called “right-to-work” law that the Indiana General Assembly recently passed.

To give just a bit of background, “right-to-work” refers to a kind of state law that bars labor unions from including provisions in their collective bargaining agreements that require their members to pay dues. It originates from section 14b of the Taft-Hartley Act, a union-reform bill which was passed in 1947 (and needed Congress to override President Truman’s veto). Since then, 22 states have enacted such laws, most of them in the virulently anti-union South. Indiana is the first state in more than 10 years to pass a right-to-work law, and it is the first Midwestern Rust Belt state to do so.

I think we can confidently say that America is at a crossroads in Indiana, just like the state motto proclaims.
I came to Indiana to help engage faith communities in the opposition effort against “right-to-work”. It can be a hard issue to explain quickly, and given the crisis-level activity in the legislature, including a 5-week walk-out by Democratic representatives in 2011, faith leaders often regard the right-to-work issue as “too partisan” to bring up in their community. The interesting part is that when I talked with “just-folks” Hoosiers, they were always very interested in the subject, even if they disagreed with my politics. However, in our sound-bite news cycle, people couldn’t find a place to talk about right-to-work without shouts or threats from either side.
For this reason, the local interfaith coalition set up several public forums where folks could learn about the right-to-work issue. We always made sure to invite representatives from both sides to participate. I, for one, am confident that in an open, honest debate people will realize how harmful and, as one South Side Indy resident put it, anti-social right-to-work is.

One of the best faith-based analogies goes like this: One day after a worship service, a man greets the pastor and tells her how much he likes the church—the worship service, scripture study, fellowship times, outreach—all of it. In fact, he likes it so much that he wants to be a deacon of the church. The pastor says, “Well, that sounds like a great idea. Let’s sit down later and see how we can make that happen.” But the man interrupts her. “Just one more thing that I think you should know, reverend. I don’t feel that members of church need to tithe, so don’t expect me to give any money.”

It’s an imperfect analogy because faith communities and labor unions obviously operate differently, but it shows the basic conflict that the right-to-work laws introduce. Right-to-work justifies the concept of a free lunch. Labor unions spend a great deal of money in organizing workers and in collective bargaining, money that comes from members’ dues. According to federal law, labor unions still must represent members even if they do not pay dues, and that slowly but surely eats away at the effectiveness of the union.

Proponents claim that right-to-work frees workers from having to financially support a union that they don’t politically support, which is superficially true. Then again, going back to the “tithing-optional” analogy, that is also like refusing to financially support their faith community for that same reason. It’s all well and good—until the building’s roof caves in.

We live in a cynical time, and unions and faith communities alike are suffering materially from that cynicism. The caretaker for one of the venues where we held a public forum was seriously afraid that the participants would “tear the place up” because there were union activists in the audience. In the public forums we held, more than once I heard someone snarkily quip about Jimmy Hoffa’s body.

The folks I worked with in Indianapolis were not all like the former Teamster president. In fact, they were very much like the church folks I worked with—honest, hard-working, compassionate, concerned for the future. Inside and outside the vortex of activity that is the Indiana statehouse, that concern for the future resonates in a most non-partisan way.

Faith communities responded almost always in positive ways when I asked them to act in opposition to the right-to-work bill. People of faith, while not always having a deep understanding of labor law, have an intimate understanding of mutual care, what Christian traditions term loving your neighbor as yourself, and of unity through faith. Right-to-work effectively drives a wedge between workers, weakening all of them. When people of faith understand that, they respond as their faith compels them—to action.

I remember a man at one of the public forums we held—the same guy who was afraid that the union folks would “tear the place up”. When my colleagues and I went to leave for the night, Thomas held us up, sharing with us how his view of unions and the right-to-work bill had changed. He linked his new understanding  to his own testimony as a Christian and to his conviction that God empowers the weak to do awesome things.

Amen, brother Thomas. Nobody inside the Indiana political vortex could say it better.

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