By Mark D. Tooley
The notoriously corrupt Teamsters Union is not typically renowned for its piety. But a Methodist bishop still traveled to Washington, D.C., to address a Teamsters rally during the Lenten season -- to tell them that "the very purpose of Jesus' coming" was to establish economic justice on earth.
"I welcome the opportunity to tell the truth about justice anywhere, anytime," United Methodist Bishop Mary Ann Swenson of Pasadena, California, enthusiastically declared to hundreds of Teamster protesters.
The placard-waving demonstrators from the 1.4 million International Brotherhood of Teamsters were snarling traffic outside the National Restaurant Association to protest the trade association's "anti-worker and anti-union lobbying activity." Teamster demonstrators were particularly targeting the restaurateurs for daring to oppose increasing the minimum wage and also the Employee Free Choice Act, which would deny a secret ballot to laborers reluctant to join a union.
Mainline Protestant prelates have a decades-long history of supporting labor rights; some of those rights were legitimate and some of its activity honorable. But the scandal-plagued Teamsters are perhaps not the ideal icon of aggrieved labor for a bishop to champion. Bishop Swenson, who is described as an "outspoken leader in the church on inclusiveness and issues of justice," was undeterred. Like many left-leaning church officials, she presides over emptying churches. With a highly reduced spiritual flock, she evidently has more time for "issues of justice," like touting the Teamsters.
Earlier this year, Swenson participated in a stacked "blue ribbon commission" to investigate Federal Express' alleged hostility to unionization. The Teamsters hope to unionize Fed Ex workers, as they have UPS. Other members of the Teamsters-instigated commission were U.S. Representative Linda Sanchez and Los Angeles Councilman Bill Rosendahl. Not surprisingly, their final report accused Federal Express of denying the "human rights" of its employees and insisted Congress "must pass" the Employee Free Choice Act, which would deny employees voting on whether to join unions the right to a secret ballot.
Bishop Swenson told her fellow United Methodists of southern California that after she had addressed a labor rally in Los Angeles at Christmas time, she was invited to the Teamsters jamboree in Washington, D.C., during the Easter season. Since she was going to be in the nation's capital "for another meeting anyway," she eagerly adapted her Advent remarks from the Christmas labor rally to the Lenten-Easter season, she explained. Evidently the Teamster cause fits comfortably into any liturgical calendar.
According to "American Prospect," the Teamsters rallying in Washington blocked traffic for three hours and jammed to Bruce Springsteen music. Photos from the well-choreographed event show protesters waving professionally printed signs accusing the restaurateurs of "serving up misery." Teamster General Secretary-Treasurer C. Thomas Keegel addressed the rambunctious crowd, as did other Teamster organizers. Bishop Swenson is not mentioned in the official Teamsters news release, but no doubt she bestirred working people with her claim to represent all the United Methodist churches of southern California, Hawaii, Guam, and Saipan, "every one of them an outpost of support for the rights of workers to organize."
Bishop Swenson did not mention that United Methodism in her area has lost half its membership even amid surging population growth, thanks partly to church officials like herself who are more interested in political and social causes of the Left than in strengthening the church with traditional Gospel teaching. "It has been my privilege to speak on behalf of striking hotel workers in L.A., of FedX employees bargaining for just wages, and for Teamsters and dockworkers at the U.S. Port of Long Beach," she boasted to the Teamsters rally.
Admitting that union advocacy is especially controversial in a global economic downturn, Bishop Swenson still insisted that "justice knows no season." And "whether the Dow is falling, or springtime is blossoming, or elections are pending, whenever and wherever basic rights are threatened, that is the time to speak up and to act out -- and that time is now."
Observing the pre-Easter season of Lent, Bishop Swenson asserted that "this is the very best time to speak truth to power, for that is central to the Easter story." She then treated the Teamster demonstrators to a short recitation of the Easter story, or at least her politically correct economic version of it, where Christ confronts "Wall Street" in the Temple of Jerusalem and drives out the money changers. "Moral authority displaces economic authority, the object of faith is restored, and justice is served, for that is the very purpose of Jesus' coming, not just into the city, but into our lives," Bishop Swenson intoned, never getting to the part where Jesus is crucified and rises from the dead, which most people associate more centrally with the Easter message.
Claiming to speak for "all faith traditions," Bishop Swenson implored: "It is out of this tradition, in this season, at this time, that I offer you the full support and encouragement of all people of faith for your effort to seek justice, to achieve just and right working conditions and wages." She concluded: "Those of you who are workers and those who are managers are first of all people, ideally people of faith, who can and should see one another as brothers and sisters, working in common purpose for a world that supports and strengthens every person in their labors."
It's nice that Bishop Swenson included "managers" as "brothers and sisters," too, though probably not too many managers were blocking traffic at the Teamsters rally in Washington. Teamster officials were more blunt. "We're here to tell management...that we aren't letting them hide behind the National Restaurant Association's skirt anymore," exclaimed Jeff Farmer, Teamsters Organizing Director. "This association's lobbyists help to carry out schemes that hurt workers and their families, dirty the environment, and compromise political ideals. This must stop now."
This particular Teamster official seemed not to have caught the Easter spirit. But Bishop Swenson is likely still more than ready to flock to the next Teamster rally, in time for the next holiday season.