As tens of thousands continue to protest in Wisconsin’s capitol city of Madison, Republican lawmakers have pushed controversial budget cuts through the local state Assembly and on to the Senate.
In the absence of local Democratic senators – who fled the state in order to stall voting on the budget proposal – the state Assembly voted on Feb. 25 to move the bill to the state Senate for consideration. The budget contains a controversial measure that strips public workers of collective bargaining rights and slashes funding for their individual health care and pensions.
Kim Wadas, associate director of education and health care for the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, explained that although legislative action on the measure is stalled because of the absent senators, the state assembly “decided to hold a floor session and take up the bill.”
“Once a bill goes through its third reading – and there's a passage on that third reading – it's no longer amendable and it can be messaged over to the Senate and taken up by the Senate,” Wadas said via phone on Feb. 25.
Although today's vote by the assembly is listed as 51 in favor of sending the bill to the Senate and 17 opposed, Wadas noted that “some of the Democratic members of the assembly have raised questions on whether the rules were properly followed on that final vote.”
Protests by an estimated 60,000 demonstrators have raged on for the last week in Madison as public workers fight against proposed budget cuts from newly sworn in Gov. Scott Walker.
Gov. Walker faces a deficit of $137 million in the current state budget and the prospect of a $3.6 billion debt within the next two years.
Friday's Assembly vote came one day after the U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference urged respect of workers rights and civility in public debate.
Bishop Steven E. Blaire of Stockton, California – who serves as chairman of the conference's Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development – wrote that Church teaching shows that “these are not just political conflicts or economic choices; they are moral choices with enormous human dimensions.”
In a Feb. 24 letter to Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, he underscored that the “debates over worker representation and collective bargaining are not simply matters of ideology or power, but involve principles of justice, participation and how workers can have a voice in the workplace and economy.”
Although Archbishop Listecki and other bishops around the state have not spoken in direct opposition to the proposed budget, they've reiterated the importance of protecting worker's rights in light of the Church's social doctrine.
Archbishop Listecki said in a Feb. 16 statement that even though “the Church is well aware that difficult economic times call for hard choices,” current situations “do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers.”
The archbishop also drew from Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” in which the pontiff criticizes governments for limiting the freedom or negotiating capacity of unions. He then referenced the late Pope John Paul II's observation that unions remain a “constructive factor” of social order and solidarity.
Bishop of Madison Robert C. Morlino added to the debate in a Feb. 24 column for the diocesan newspaper the Catholic Herald.
Bishop Morlino said he believes “the final question boils down to” whether or not “the sacrifice which teachers and other labor union members are called to make” is fair.
However, he added that the “relativism of our culture and society once again does us grave harm,” since the meaning of “fair” is viewed as relative to the individual. This, the bishop lamented, gives “no common ground for reasonable and civil discourse” and leaves people with nothing but “emotions.”
Also cautioning against polarization is Dr. Constance Nielson, who serves on the local diocesan Catholic Campaign for Human Development committee.
In a Feb. 24 guest column for the Catholic Herald, Nielson said that although “the secular media might portray the unrest in Wisconsin, as 'taxpayers vs. public workers' or 'liberals vs. conservatives,' an authentically Catholic view of society would not frame it this way.”
What's “most salient for the Catholic perspective,” Nielson said, is to not view the current conflict “as a power-struggle.”
The debate, she added, “should always be aimed towards achieving justice; it should never be seen as a struggle against other people.”
“In other words, both sides of any labor disagreement ought to be working for justice and the common good, rather than to achieve their own personal victory,” she said.