Clergy Join Fight for Collective Bargaining in Ohio

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AFT president Randi Weingarten, the Rev. Al Sharpton and AFSCME secretary-treasurer Lee Saunders swung through Ohio this week, encouraging public employees and members of several African-American church congregations to keep up their fight against union-busting legislation.

During visits with AFT local leaders in Cleveland on March 7 and Toledo on March 8, the trio reinforced connections among civil rights, workers' rights and human rights, especially as they pertain to S.B. 5, a bill that would strip Ohio workers of their right to collective bargaining.

Weingarten and Sharpton in Toledo, OH   Weingarten called the turn of events in the Midwest a "defining moment" in labor history, harkening back to the early days of the labor movement. "Even when we had nothing economically," she said, "we had something spiritually. If we can reconnect, regain our dignity and voice, then God and our unions will provide for a decent life. But it will not only happen through divine intervention. We have to fight."

Toledo Federation of Teachers president and AFT vice president Francine Lawrence, who later hosted the visitors on a high school visit, said children learn better and faster where there's labor-management collaboration. "But the state administration doesn't want to collaborate with workers," she added. "This is not about balancing the state budget. It's about a deep-seated anti-union bias."

Sharpton noted that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 while he was defending the rights of 1,300 sanitation workers who belonged to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). "If you cannot defend collective bargaining in 2011," Sharpton said, "you need to take Martin Luther King's picture off your wall."

In a packed hall at the Pinewood Tabernacle in Toledo, several other ministers stood up to testify as well. Pinewood pastor Calvin Sweeney, who has taught in the Toledo public schools, explained that under S.B. 5, minimum salaries for teachers would drop to about $20,000 a year—official poverty wages for a family of three. "That's a human rights issue, and we in the religious community need to deal with that," he said.

The Rev. Cedric Brock, head of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Toledo, knows firsthand the importance of unions. "My father was a glass cutter," he said. "He would come home after double shifts with cut hands. It's important that we as pastors let the government know that we can't let laborers be treated in this kind of way. We must be concerned because these are our teachers. We must not let this moment pass us."

Dubbing S.B. 5 a "wake-up call," Bishop Edward Cook recalled hearing an oil executive say during the 1970s gas crisis: "I'm a businessman, not an American." That statement stayed with Cook. "It was all about the narrow goals and objectives of a corporation," he said—the very same objectives driving union-busters today. S.B. 5, he said, is "a grand strategy that must be met with a grander strategy."

The tour's first stop in Cleveland was the Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church, where NAACP local leader George Forbes pointed out to more than 300 clergy and activists that unions have been vital to people of color "who couldn't get big jobs in the private sector."

Al Sharpton in Ohio David Quolke, president of the Cleveland Teachers Union, noted that stronger collective bargaining agreements translate into a stronger middle class. "People who bargain collectively are also a vital part of our economy," he said. "They are customers and consumers. They are taxpayers. They buy cars, pay mortgages and spend money at small businesses and retail stores."

Quolke, Sharpton, Saunders and U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich took part in a news conference at Cleveland's City Hall on Monday, along with members of the City Council, which approved a resolution condemning S.B. 5. And Weingarten joined Sharpton on his syndicated radio show Tuesday afternoon, answering calls from an exiled Wisconsin state senator camping out in Philadelphia, as well as public employees across the nation.

Sharpton promised another appearance of the "Lee/Randi/Al trio" in Columbus, Ohio, on March 15. "We're like the Temptations," he quipped, reminding the Toledo ministers that during the civil rights era, before smartphones, "we changed the world without a fax machine. It's easier to organize now than it ever was. We just have to have the will. We may lose a battle, but we won't lose the war."

More information about what's going on in Ohio is available here. [Annette Licitra, Scott Stephens/photos by Madalyn Ruggiero and Janet Century]

March 9, 2011