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Wisconsin UUs continue month-long protest for workers’ rights

Governor signs bill to curtail collective bargaining, but demonstrations continue.
By Donald E. Skinner
3.21.11

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Members of the First Unitarian Society of Madison march to the Wisconsin State Capitol.

Members of the First Unitarian Society of Madison march to the Wisconsin State Capitol building to protest the elimination of collective bargaining rights for state employees. Holding the banner is Jerry Moser, a retired UU community minister affiliated with the Madison congregation. (Angie Studnica)

Unitarian Universalists are among the thousands of people who have been deeply involved in protests against an effort in Wisconsin to do away with collective bargaining rights for nearly all of the state’s public employees.

Members of the First Unitarian Society of Madison have been at the Capitol every day since the protests began February 12. “We’re up to our eyeballs in this controversy,” said the Rev. Michael A. Schuler, parish minister at First Unitarian. This is very much of a piece with our own Unitarian Universalist purposes and principles.”

He said many members of his congregation have been at the Capitol daily and continue to be involved, even after Gov. Scott Walker officially signed away collective bargaining rights March 11 as part of a plan to reduce a budget deficit. Several weeks ago, when it appeared that protesters might be arrested, Schuler himself joined a small clergy group that planned to offer themselves for arrest to ensure a peaceful protest. “Fortunately it didn’t come to that,” he said.

The issue of workers’ rights is personal for many members of the congregation, he noted. “We have a lot of public employees in the congregation—teachers, university personnel, a police officer.” Now that the bill has been signed by the governor, the goal has shifted, he said, from preventing its passage to how to recover worker rights. “We have been supporting besieged workers in their struggle to retain collective bargaining rights. Now we move on to how to restore these rights. We will continue to be involved.”

First Unitarian member Abigail Swetz has been at the Capitol most days since the first week. “At first I went because I was scared and shocked and needed to do something, and it felt good to be together with other struggling people,” she said. “And now (after the bill signing) I feel sad and bewildered, so I go to find my community so I can help decide what to do next. When you’ve been attacked, community is the only place to turn. We are becoming a movement. And I am a part of it.”

She said that in the past month she has often recalled a sermon by the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar of All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Okla., where she formerly attended church. “He referenced a Native American tribe’s tradition of healing the sick by placing them at the center of the community so everyone could tend to them. In Wisconsin we’ve placed democracy in the middle of our community, and now we are all participating in healing it.”

She said that since protests began in Wisconsin there have always been many UUs present. “There are so many of us out here, carrying signs, leading chants and songs, carrying our Standing on the Side of Love banner, that I can’t count them all. We’re everywhere.”

Swetz is a teacher. Her wife, Lauri Schwartz, is a police officer, so both could eventually be affected by the loss of bargaining rights, even though police are not affected by the new legislation. In a post to the UUA’s Standing on the Side of Love website in late February, she wrote, “Last week, my wife worked a 12-hour shift, took off her weapon, put on her union shirt, and marched for another 2 hours around and inside the Capitol. She did that 2 days in a row. This entire protest is a labor of love, and if her actions don’t prove that, I don’t know what will.”

Beryl Aschenberg is director of religious education at the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee where she said the governor’s actions and the protests have affected every aspect of congregational life. Many members have participated in rallies against the governor’s move. In addition, State Sen. Chris Larson, one of 14 Democratic senators who left the state in late February for three weeks in an attempt to block approval of the measure by the Senate, is a member of the congregation.

“In the past weeks all of the staff’s pastoral radars have been sounding alarms in every interaction we have with members,” said Aschenberg. “The prevalent feelings are of frustration, anger, powerlessness, deep sadness, and disbelief, to name a few. The mood permeates all of our meetings, as well as coffee hour after each of our three services.”

Aschenberg has also talked about the worker issue in Children’s Chapel. “At least a third of [the children] had been to Madison to protest with their families.” A room was also set aside after each worship service for those who wanted to speak with others about events in Madison.

On February 27 the Rev. Drew Kennedy, senior minister at the Milwaukee congregation, scrapped his planned sermon and addressed the issue of worker rights. He told his congregation that, to him, the issue is how to go about restoring morality. “We cannot . . . let our democracy continue to be transformed into a morally bankrupt plutocracy . . . while the middle class and poor work two and three jobs, suffer through bankruptcies, double up with their families and friends. We need to restore the moral center of the universe in this country.”

Kennedy said he maintained contact with Sen. Larson’s family during the weeks the senators were out of the state, offering any help that might be needed. The senators returned March 12.

The Rev. Kelly J. Crocker, minister of religious education at the Madison congregation, preached a sermon February 26 and 27 noting that her mother had benefited from a union. Crocker said that in deciding how to respond to the situation in Wisconsin as a UU, she recalled Unitarian and Universalist historical figures such as abolitionist the Rev. William Henry Furness, suffragist Susan B. Anthony, and the Rev. James Reeb, who was killed in Selma, Ala.

Noting that religious principles involving the inherent worth and dignity of all people and compassion and justice in human relations were being dismissed or ignored by state leaders in Wisconsin, she observed, “Our religious ancestors lived and died for the conviction that religious beliefs are true if and only if they help you to live a more loving, more just life. In the coming days may we each take the time to reflect on what we believe, may we take the time to face one another, and together, put those beliefs and principles into action to help each of us live lives that are more just and more loving. Because then we may be able to create a world which is more just and more loving.”

Schuler said Crocker’s sermon earned a standing ovation, “the first I’ve seen in 23 years. It was very moving.”

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