02/23/2011 12:18 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Should Christians Care About Unions?

More than 30,000 demonstrators have descended on the Wisconsin Statehouse to protest Governor Scott Walker's decision to severely restrict the collective bargaining rights of most public employee unions. The proposed bill would make it illegal for unions to use healthcare benefits and their pension funds as bargaining chips; only leaving discussions about actual wages on the table for negotiation.

In response to this controversial move, 14 Democratic State Senators fled into the neighboring state of Illinois -- beyond the reach of Wisconsin State troopers dispatched by Governor Walker -- in order to block the Republican-majority legislature from voting on the Governor's proposal.

Most states have a constitutional mandate to balance their own budgets. Wisconsin is no exception.

In one sense, Governor Walker is simply meeting his gubernatorial obligations to make tough decisions in the face of his state's $137 million budget shortfall. Even if he were a Democrat, with a Republican legislature it's unlikely he would have the political capital or public support necessary to cover Wisconsin's budget shortfall through tax increases alone. Spending cuts are really the only option on the table.

However, for the Governor to use the budget debate as an excuse to advance a pet political cause -- namely, busting public employee unions -- is opportunistic at best (and that's being charitable). Protecting collective bargaining rights for workers is not only critical to the existence of unions; it is foundational to creating an environment where economic opportunity and social mobility is possible for everyone else.

America first learned these lessons the hard way in the 19th century, an age where massive economic inequality and social upheaval pit factory owners against workers unable to provide for their families -- let alone hope for any sort of social mobility -- often with tragic consequences. Violent employer crackdowns on striking workers eventually forced the U.S. government to intervene, officially legalizing unions.

In addition to eliminating pension and healthcare discussions as almost universally upheld union bargaining chips, Governor Walker's bill would require public union employees to cover 5.8 percent of their pension costs and 12 percent of their healthcare premiums. While these concessions are not necessarily unreasonable in light of the state's requirement to balance the budget, they're problematic for a few reasons.

1. This isn't really about the budget; it's about union-busting.

Governor Walker's proposal is not the result of tough-minded, but good faith, negotiations with the unions. Rather, it is a unilateral act that not only hurts these employees in the short-term, but eliminates the one avenue they have traditionally relied on for negotiations about these kind of cuts -- and will continue to rely upon in the future.

As former Wisconsin Congressman David Obey told Talking Points Memo, Governor Walker's decision is more fitting for a third-world dictator like Hosni Mubarak than a United States' governor:

"I think what Governor Walker is trying to do amounts to political thuggery. It is one thing to say that these are tough times -- everybody's got to cut back and public employees are going to have to take cuts like the rest of us ... but he's using it as an excuse to gut the ability of workers to organize and bargain collectively. In my view that's outrageous."

Picking up on these themes on Feb. 18 in the Washington Post, E.J. Dionne remarked:

This isn't just about budgets -- or even primarily about budgets. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is drumming up a crisis to change the very nature of the relationship between public workers and the government. He would strip their unions of their bargaining rights on everything except wages. ... Whether you think the second is good policy or not, it essentially renders collective bargaining meaningless. Why shouldn't this be seen as a Republican governor and a Republican legislature looking for a way to strike a political blow against allies of the other party -- and using budget issues as an excuse?

2. Governor Walker is selectively picking winners and losers.

When President Obama chose to continue Bush's policy of bailing out a bankrupt General Motors -- holding its hand through the bankruptcy and restructuring process, while providing the financial backing it needed to stay afloat -- Republicans lambasted the Administration for "picking winners and losers."

If Governor Walker is so concerned about balancing Wisconsin's budget, why are police and firefighters unions selectively spared from his executive fiat, while teachers, nurses and other public workers are denied collective bargaining rights? Wouldn't the state also experience savings by including police and fighter-fighters in this bill?

Not only does this smack of hypocrisy -- Republicans cannot credibly critique Obama for picking winners and losers in the private sector, when they do the same with regards to specific unions -- it undermines the Governor's ability to position himself as an honest broker of already difficult conversations about Wisconsin's fiscal future.

3. Christians should care about what's happening in Wisconsin.

As Christians, let's not forget that Martin Luther King Jr. was not assassinated in 1968 during a Civil Rights march; he was killed in Memphis, Tenn., while in town supporting a strike organized by the black sanitation workers union, A.F.S.C.M.E. Local 1733. That this also happened to be the local chapter of the very same union Governor Walker aspires to unravel in his own state is not without a sense of historical irony.

Add to this the compounding irony that the national union benefitting these sanitation workers was originally founded in Wisconsin in 1938; what started as the "Wisconsin State Administrative, Clerical, Fiscal and Technical Employees Association" would eventually grow to become the second largest union in the country.

The night before Dr. King met the assassins bullet in Memphis, he preached what would go down as one of the most important sermons of his entire career: I've been to the Mountain Top. In addition to hauntingly prophetic allusions to his own death, he reflected on the state of the world in light of the theological commitments that marked his life:

Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world.

And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, "Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?" I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God's children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn't stop there...

...Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee -- the cry is always the same: "We want to be free."

Finally, after reminding his audience of the specifics of the Memphis sanitation worker's strike, Dr. King invoked the parable of the Good Samaritan, laying down the gauntlet for his fellow Christians assembled that night:

...The first question that the [religious man] ... asked was, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"

That's the question before you tonight. Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job." Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?" The question is not, "If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?" The question is, "If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?" That's the question.

Dr. King's message on the eve of his death is echoed in Pope Benedict XVI's recent admonition to Christians (hat-tip: Duane Shank at Sojourners) reminding them of the moral imperative to uphold the rights of workers (from Benedict's 2009 Encyclical, Caritas In Veritate):

"...budgetary policies, with cuts in social spending often made under pressure from international financial institutions, can leave citizens powerless in the face of old and new risks; such powerlessness is increased by the lack of effective protection on the part of workers' associations. Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labour unions. Hence traditional networks of solidarity have more and more obstacles to overcome. The repeated calls issued within the Church's social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers' associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honoured today even more than in the past ..."

A version of this post originally appeared at Recovering Evangelical.