Amid unprecedented protests in the state of Wisconsin over Republican Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to sharply limit bargaining rights for union employees, the state’s Catholic bishops underscored the “moral obligation” of protecting workers' rights and called for lawmakers to carefully evaluate the difficult situation.
John Huebscher, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, said the recent protests – which have drawn tens of thousands to the capitol building in Madison and have spanned over four days as of Friday – are unlike anything he has ever seen.
“I've been working in or around the capitol for 40 years and I can't remember anything quite like this,” he said in a Feb. 18 interview with CNA.
Huebscher explained that the controversy began over newly sworn-in Gov. Scott Walker's proposed budget which slashes funding for health care and pensions for union workers and changes collective bargaining – a move that “drastically reduces the things workers can bargain over.”
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.
Opposition to the bill reached a boiling point last week when Democratic legislators left the capitol, refusing to participate in a vote on the legislation.
“Under our constitution, you need 20 senators in order to conduct business and the Republicans only have 19 senators,” Huebscher explained. “So the Democrats, by not being around, have prevented action on the bill.”
Although Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee and other bishops around the state have not spoken in direct opposition to the proposed budget, they've unequivocally 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 then quoted Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” in which the pontiff criticizes governments for limiting the freedom or negotiating capacity of unions. He also referenced the late Pope John Paul II's observation that unions remain a “constructive factor” of social order and solidarity.
“The bishops are very careful – it's a balanced statement,” Huebscher said. “Because you support workers or the right of unions to assert and affirm their interests, (it) doesn't follow that every claim made by workers is valid.”
Huesbscher also qualified that unions, “just like anybody else, have to consider the good and make sacrifices.” However, he added, it's “a mistake to cite hard times as a reason to dismiss or marginalize unions.”
“The bishops are merely reminding everybody of the teaching of the Church, over the last century or more, of the dignity of work and the appropriate place for unions without giving them carte blanche to have everything they want.”
The executive director noted that ultimately, Gov. Walker's proposed budget asks legislators to use critical and “prudential” judgment.
“Does the bill serve to marginalize unions? Does this serve to drastically reduce the ability of worker to articulate and protect their interests? Those are fair questions to engage.”
Amid speculation that similar budget cuts for union workers are foreseeable in other states legislatures, Huebscher said “it's no secret that proposals like this are showing up in other states,” citing Ohio as an immediate example.
“I think it's a very legitimate point to make that if it's done here it would be done or at least debated in other places.”
Opposition to the proposed budget has continued to swell in Wisconsin with local schools even canceling classes on Feb. 18 to participate in the demonstrations.
Huebscher observed that the bill has struck such a chord with Wisconsin citizens because of its potentially far reaching implications for public and private employees.
“If the state – as a matter of public policy – can say that workers are going to be very limited in what they can bargain for, that will seep into other segments of the economy,” he said.
“I think workers perceive that this is going to effect them – even workers that aren't unionized.”
Huebscher added that there are benefits employees in the state have today that they didn't have decades ago such as just wages, paid overtime, 40-hour work weeks and the inability to be fired without due process.
“There was a time when these things weren't available to people,” he said, adding that Wisconsin “is one of the first places in the country to have unemployment compensation and workers compensation.
“There's a sense among working people – that while they don't belong to a union today – things they have exist today because unions fought for them. And they're concerned about losing that.”
He said that Wisconsin has a long tradition of integrating and affirming workers and it “parallels with the development of Catholic social teaching and the rights of labor.”
Huebscher expressed gratitude that the protests have remained peaceful thus far, saying that bishops in the state have “urged people to remain civil, talk to each other, and keep the common good in mind.”