The union-busting legislation of the new Republican Wisconsin Governor, Scott Walker, has dominated the headlines for several weeks now. By his own words, the Jesuit-educated Walker has acknowledged a hidden agenda, to diminish the collective bargaining rights of teachers, nurses, snowplow drivers and other state workers, with the ultimate intent of breaking the union. This former county commissioner, in a now notorious prank interview, compared himself to Ronald Reagan and said, "This is our moment, this is our time to change the course of history."
Walker's "moment in history" - paralleling actions taken by Republican governors in other states - marks the beginning of an ambitious movement to systematically dismantle a century of social progress. As Catholics, we must respond to all those who trample these American values, borne out of the Catholic Social Tradition. Your help is needed today, and into the future, to embark on a crusade of sorts ...for the common good.
The right of labor to organize - and collectively bargain - is a foundational principal of Catholic Social Justice, first enshrined in Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum. It has been further developed and amplified for over a century by popes, bishops and theologians. Most recently, Pope Benedict XVI addressed labor rights in his 2009 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate.
Emboldened with an over-reaching confidence from the midterm elections, and led by the one-size-fits-all budget slashing Tea Party philosophy, other states with Republican governors and legislative majorities are in the process of passing similar union busting legislation. Ohio and Idaho are two of the states in a second wave of this ambush. Some Republican led state houses, including those in Indiana, Tennessee, and Florida, appear to be scrutinizing the outcome in Wisconsin before acting. It is also reported that Missouri, Iowa, Michigan, New Hampshire, Maine and Pennsylvania are also considering legislation to limit worker's rights.
With the support of progressives, labor unions have taken a stand for justice in response to Walker's bad faith efforts (he did not campaign on breaking the union). The views of the American public have become clear. At least three public opinion polls (USA / Gallup, Greenberg Quinlan Rossner, NY Times / CBS) have shown that both the citizens of Wisconsin and people across the country support Labor's right to collectively bargain, by a margin of at least 27%, averaging 60% in support versus 33% in opposition.
At the same time, the Wisconsin Catholic bishops and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) have also weighed in. The Wisconsin Catholic Conference has issued a statement that supports labor's right to organize, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has spoken out in solidarity with the Wisconsin bishops. In the USCCB Statement, Bishop Stephen Blaire of the Diocese of Stockton CA says, "these are not just political conflicts or economic choices; they are moral choices with enormous consequences. The debates over worker ... 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."
The turmoil in Wisconsin and other States coincides with the budget battles in Washington DC. House Republicans are in a "fire, ready, aim" mode, seeking draconian federal budget cuts that do nothing to address the nation's long-term budget problem, yet cut programs for the most vulnerable in our society today. Speaker of the House and fellow Catholic, John Boehner, speaks of "moral responsibilities" while proposing budget cuts that would eliminate $7.6 billion in support to women and children (the WIC program), $2.5 billion in home heating oil subsidies for the poor, and $4.1 billion on job training programs, to name just a few. These symbolic cuts - which could be paid for by closing corporate loopholes - are not only an assault on the common good, and presumably the morality that Boehner wants to preserve, but are also bad economic policy. The investment bank of Goldman Sachs and conservative economist Mark Zandi of Moody's, who advised John McCain in his bid for the presidency, have projected these cuts would actually hurt the economy and job creation, let alone the people whom it is supposed to serve.
The Massachusetts Catholic Conference has issued a statement in support of working families and the poor that reflects their concerns for the budget cutting frenzy going on across our nation. The Massachusetts bishops make a pledge to "do all we can ...to help our neighbor's in need." They plead for elected officials, such as John Boehner and all citizens to preserve "for the sake of human dignity, a special place for the vulnerable ...for whom the destination of every dollar is now so consequential."
The union-breaking legislation and the federal budget cuts House Republicans are demanding place an unacceptable and unnecessary burden on working families and the poor. Helping put this in its proper perspective, Newt Gingrich - likely presidential candidate and recent convert to Catholicism who proposed Republicans use the slogan "Jobs not Food Stamps" in the 2010 midterm congressional campaign - has coined the term "replacement conservatism" to describe this multi-front Republican assault on the common good, or as he sees it, on liberalism.
Walker's "moment" in history, Boehner's judgment on "moral responsibility," and Gingrich's "replacement conservatism" represent the strategic zeal brought to a political war being waged by ideologically conservative free marketers. Their goal - under the guise of liberty - is to roll back the social justice progress that defines our nation's growth over the past century. If successful, they would reshape our country and economy to put corporate interests and those of the wealthy first, rather than to serve the needs of people. They do so unapologetically at a point in time when we are facing record poverty and a concentration of wealth that has never been greater.
If ever there was a time for patriotic social justice Catholics to fight for what we believe in, this is that time. So, we must mobilize our collective efforts like never before and embark on a crusade for the common good.
What you can do:
1. If you have a governor or legislature threatening to limit the rights of labor to bargain collectively, call or e-mail them to let them know you support the collective bargaining rights of public employees. Please keep us apprised of your efforts and of what is going on in your state.
2. Contact your bishop and tell them that you support the Wisconsin Catholic Conference's and the USCCB's statements in support of the public employee's labor unions. Their influence is important in the public square. Ask them to consider doing the same if your state is facing a labor busting bill and to also consider issuing a statement similar to the one issued by the Massachusetts bishops in support of the poor. Please advise us if you learn that your bishops have issued the statement that we are urging them to make.
Thank you for your continued support. Let us all keep one another in our prayers this Lenten Season, particularly our elected officials and those most in need, as we work in pursuit of a more just society.
With warm regards,
Patrick Whelan MD PhD