Question your elders. All of them.

The metaphorical work water cooler. Where ever it is in the office, it is the gathering place for criticizing our employer. We discuss how our fellow employees have been treated, how thing could be better, and even our relative salaries.

We also criticize our government leaders. We have ample candidates to choose from (well, except maybe in Chicago), and we are given the opportunity to toss out the stinky ones. We even have whole television stations dedicated to finding and highlighting the flaws of our President.6c82a0ed48fb4a95c1c3dfb0861433a5

We criticize our community elders, our parents, the talking heads on TV, and we have even – just recently and in the wake of the priest sex scandals – begun scrutinizing and criticizing our religious leaders.

Yet why is it that any criticism of a union leaders is considered an attack on the working class or worse and attack against America. Why can’t criticizing union leaders be an active and accepted part of the American dialog?

It’s not because the middle class is made up of union members. In fact only 11% of all Americans are members of a union which breaks down to 4% of Americans are in private unions and 7% are government employees. So who is the working class? Well, it’s everyone above the poverty line and everyone below the so-rich-they-don’t-need-to-work line.

Looking at the bottom first, the percentage of Americans living below the poverty rate in this country has held pretty constant at 15% over the last 50 years. So the working class is above the bottom 15% of American wage earners. Looking at the top, we may have some debate. The 99%ers, or Occupy Movement stated that only the top 1% is richer than requiring work. However, we can be more conservative and say that everyone below the 90% line still gets up every morning, drives to work and puts in a full day.

So everyone in between that top 10% and the bottom 15%, or the middle 75% of Americans is working class. But again, only 11% is unionized. Let that sink in. The union is not the middle class, it is in fact less than 15% of the middle class. It is also very privileged, and it is supported by the greater middle class who pays for union benefits they do not receive through higher taxes, yet unfunded pensions, reduced government services, strikes, and over-billed government engineering projects.

The greater middle class, to which my family and likely your family belongs, has every right to criticize, scrutinize, and question the use of our tax dollars. And when one small slice of the group is getting disproportionate attention, we are all welcome at the discussion table.

Support your teachers – I do. But question their union leaders. I’d love to see our teachers better paid, but I’d also like to see nurses, doctors, musicians, scientists, curators, and baristas better paid. In fact I would like to see everyone who does a good job and is nice get a raise. However, in a world of limited resources, not everyone can get everything. Before you jump on the unconditional support for Karen Lewis band wagon, ask yourself, how much of what you love about Chicago are you willing to give up for it?

Criticizing the union and our union leaders, is not un-American. It is in fact what makes America strong. Find an opinion, learn to politely articulate it, and bravely join the discussion. In the mean time, I will be doing the same.

Editorial note…
The original headline of this piece was “Union criticism fits fairly into the civic dialog”. That headline was boring, pedantic and preachy and I was embarrassed . Believe me it happens. It is my job to make this blog both fun and thoughtful. Man, my apologies.

Discussing same-sex marriage

I stand in favor of same-sex marriage and equal rights for homosexuals, including adoption and reproduction. I have many gay friends and have attended all of their weddings. Those were some great parties! As a result I have historically been intolerant of religious conservatives who do not share my view.  From my perspective as a non-believer, there was no consequence to them and their enmity just seemed mean spirited if not wholly bigoted. Furthermore, I was intolerant of the argument that this is a religious freedom issue.  It made no logical or Constitutional sense that one person deserves the freedom to worship while another person is denied the freedom to marry (or buy a cake without prejudice).

But I have come to the realization that to some believers, there is a reasonable foothold for opposing same-sex marriage. They believe there is a consequence for their support and it is based in their respect for the laws of their church and more importantly in the penalties for breaking those laws.  They believe acting to support that which their church opposes will cause them real harm. Of course from a secular perspective it is difficult to understand what that harm could be. Yet the church is clear: obey our laws or your internal well-being in danger: you will go to hell (no kidding).

Most of us went to church as children and were educated with two sets of laws. There is the law of the land – or the government – and there is the “law of God”. The law of the land promises penalties for violation, including fines and jail, but the “law of God” promises penalties in the form of the disapproval of our peers and punishment in the afterlife. To many people, these are just as powerful.

Ideally the law of the land and the law of the church would correspond perfectly, but on a few issues they do not. Some believers manage the conflict by cherry picking the church’s laws that work for them. But others do not believe they have the right to decide which of the Church’s laws can be ignored. A good number of religious Americans believe that you follow the rules of the church as dictated or there are severe penalties. We are not in a position to tell them that they are wrong, and I believe the Constitution supports that.

I continue to disagree with my religious friends who cannot support same-sex marriage, but I no longer question their motives. I accept that they have been educated by a wrathful teacher and have genuine fear of breaking their church’s laws. My hope is that their religious leaders come to a more rational, fair, and contemporary position. In the meantime, I think the religious right would be well-served to re-frame the discussion to underscore the penalties they genuinely fear rather than relying on a lopsided and prejudice-charged argument of religious freedom.