BY STAFF REPORTER
BISHOPS in Wisconsin have been praised by a top official at the US bishops’ conference for their “clear statement” on workers’ rights in the midst of a fierce row between trade unions and a Republican govenor.
The chairman of the US bishops’ committee on domestic ustice and human development said he supported views expressed by Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee on behalf of the state’s bishops.
Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, California, the committee chairman, said: “I write to express support for and solidarity with your clear statement. You and our brother bishops in Wisconsin are offering a timely reminder of what the Church teaches on the rights and duties of workers, including the right to form and belong to unions and other associations, and the obligation to address difficult problems with respect for the rights and needs of all.” The Catholic Labour Network released a letter it sent to Wisconsin lawmakers echoing the same point. And in a column for his diocesan newspaper Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin, called for civility in the debate, calling for common ground be reached on what is fair for both sides. Large daily protests have inundated Madison, Wisconsin's capital city, and its government and legislative offices since a budget-balancing proposal was issued earlier in February by Governor Scott Walker.
The bill would force state employees to pay half of their pension costs and 12.6 per cent of their healthcare coverage, moves that Mr Walker expects will save the state around £20 million in the short term and up to £180 million over the next two years. In exchange for the savings, Mr Walker promised no layoffs or furloughs – but threatened to lay off 6, 000 workers if the bills failed to pass. But state workers, many of whom belong to unions, contend the bill is a pretext to destroying union rights. The bill would strip nearly all collective bargaining power for most government workers at the state, county and local levels, including teachers. The only exceptions would be for police and firefighters.
Unions would have to win a public referendum to seek pay raises higher than the consumer price index. The bill would also require union members to vote every year on whether they wanted to continue to be represented by their union, and would forbid unions from forcing work ers to pay union dues as a condition of employment.
The state assembly passed Mr Walker’s bill last week. It was stalled in the state Senate, because Democrats left Wisconsin to prevent a quorum from being called, delaying consideration of the bill.
Bishop Blaire said: “The situation in Wisconsin is not unique. Other states and the federal government also face daunting challenges of growing budget deficits and how to allocate burdens and share sacrifice in ways that reflect principles of social justice, economic fairness and wise stewardship.” He told Archbishop Listecki: “Your efforts to share the consistent teaching of the Church in the midst of this controversy are an example for all of us on how to apply our moral principles to the ‘signs of the times’.” Archbishop Listecki said in his earlier statement: “Hard times do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers.” He added that it would be “a mistake to marginalise or dismiss unions as impediments to economic growth”.
Bishop Morlino urged Catholics of the Madison diocese to consider the fairness issue. “At a time when all are called to sacrifice, this question requires a weighing of the relative sacrifice which all are called upon to make, so that a judgment about just proportions can be made by each one of us,” Bishop Morlino said in a column in Madison’s diocesan newspaper.
He said widespread disagreement over what fairness meant was a sign of the “terrible effects of relativism on our culture”. The bishop said: “A culture governed by the dictatorship of relativism cannot agree on what the word ‘fair’ means. What is left is the emotion which displays itself over and over again with increased lack of the civility to which President Obama recently, rightfully, called all of us.”