John Huebscher, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, has represented the state’s bishops on legislative matters for nearly 19 years. Huebscher said he has never witnessed anything like the protests against Walker’s budget proposal.
“I’ve been in and around the capitol for 40 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” he told The Compass in a telephone interview Feb. 21. “Certainly I’ve never seen a situation where so many senators have the left state. I’ve never seen sustained demonstrations this size.”
Huebscher was alluding to the 14 Democratic state senators who fled to Illinois to avoid voting on Walker’s budget bill.
It is not unusual to have large groups of demonstrators present at the Capitol for one day, he said, “but to have that many day after day after day, I don’t recall that in 40 years. This is clearly something new.”
On Feb. 16, Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, president of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, issued a statement on the rights of workers and labor unions. It was presented to members of the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance. Bishop David Ricken issued a statement Feb. 18 in agreement with the archbishop’s letter.
The statement, which draws on Catholic social teaching and the writings of several popes, points out the value of labor unions. It also states that unions “like every other economic actor (are) called to work for the common good, to make sacrifices when required and to adjust to new economic realities.”
“People have called to express gratitude and appreciation for the statement,” said Huebscher. “Some have appreciated the affirmation that unions have a continuing role to play. Some expressed satisfaction that the statement was balanced and thoughtful. Some are unhappy with it. Some read into it an endorsement of unions in every respect.”
According to Huebscher, the state bishops saw this opportunity as “a teachable moment.”
“It’s not brand new stuff that they talk about (regarding) labor and employers and role of unions,” he said. “People have been dealing with this since Pope Leo XIII (1891). … If this serves as a catalyst for Catholics to rediscover the rich body of the teachings in these documents, that will be a plus.”
When forming opinions on the current situation in Madison, Huebscher said Catholics and all people of faith “would do well to model what the bishops have done.”
“If you look at that statement, first and foremost it’s a teaching document. It affirms Catholic teaching on the rights of workers and the value of labor unions,” he said. “In doing so, the statement does not criticize any leader. It doesn’t demonize any interest group. It doesn’t question anybody’s motive. It sets up the teaching of the church that’s been formed over 100 years. It calls on everybody to engage in civil discourse with each other as we move forward as a state.”