We are called as religious leaders to support public employees who are fighting to preserve their collective bargaining rights. To understand why, we need to look no further than the example of Martin Luther King, Jr.
When King was assassinated he was in Memphis, Tennessee, supporting a sanitation workers strike. The slogan those public employees adopted for their struggle was "I am a Man." The struggle in Memphis was about human dignity and human rights far more than it was about money. The sanitation workers in Memphis were fighting for their right to bargain and the recognition of their union. They knew without these things, the mayor of Memphis would not treat them as human beings deserving of respect and dignity. He would treat them like chattel consigned to marginal pay without the prospect of job security.
King understood that the key issue in Memphis was human dignity. He urged religious leaders to support the struggle by marching, speaking out, organizing economic boycotts and engaging in civil disobedience. Religious leaders have moral authority. That moral authority should be used to work for justice.
The struggle today in Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin and other states is the same as it was in King's day. Public employees are fighting for human dignity. Collective bargaining rights stem from the rights of assembly and free speech. An assault on collective bargaining is an assault on human rights.
It is also an assault on our democracy. Any society that does not afford its citizens human rights does not deserve to be called a democracy. Without human rights it is impossible for citizens to make their views known or participate in society's decision making process.
Some of you have probably heard that this struggle is about fixing state deficits. It is not. In Wisconsin, the state's immediate budget shortfall stems from the legislature's recent decision to cut taxes. In Ohio stripping public employees of their rights to bargain will not demonstrably save the state money. When confronted with this fact State Senator Shannon Jones, the sponsor of the legislation, was asked why she wanted to pass it. She replied, "It's my philosophy. We think that public employees should not have the rights that they have now."
Larger issues are at stake. If we religious leaders are to continue to have moral authority in our communities we must speak up in support of public employees' right to collective bargaining. In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. If our principles are to be more than hollow words we must stand up for human rights when they are threatened.
As in King's day, there are many things we can do to support the struggle of public employees. We can reach out to labor unions and let them know of our support. We can work with solidarity organizations like Interfaith Workers Justice and Jobs with Justice. We can write letters. We can preach sermons and hold teach-ins to educate the members of our congregations and the public. We can march and rally, and if the time comes, we can engage, like King and his generation, in non-violent civil disobedience.
Towards the end of his last speech in Memphis, King preached: "Let us rise up ... with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation." Today, as in 1968, the challenges we face present us with the opportunity to make America a better nation. Don't be silent. Don't be absent. Let your voice be heard.
The Rev. Colin Bossen
Minister, Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland
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