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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Jun 26, 2012, 9:00 am

Nuns on Bus Give Yardstick to Paul Ryan on Catholic Economic Justice

BY Roger Bybee

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U.S. Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), chairman of the House Budget Committee.   (Photo by Saul Loeb/Getty Images)

Catholic nuns seem to have an uncanny ability to spot the insincere, the hypocritical and the uncaring. Thus, it should be no surprise that House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan—selected by his Janesville, Wis., high-school classmates as "Biggest Brown-Noser" at the same time they elected him prom king—would fail to pass the sniff test of progressive nuns.

A group of nuns from NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby, decided to take to the road on an excellent adventure, pointing out the disastrous impact that Ryan’s budget—stamped with Mitt Romney’s approval as “marvelous”—would have on those outside the top 1%, particularly the poor. “As Catholic sisters, we must speak out against the current House Republican budget, authored by Rep. Paul Ryan,” reads a statement on the group’s website. “We do so because it harms people who are already suffering.”

Specifically, as Jonathan Rosenblum points out:

According to the New York Times, Ryan's budget would cut $3.3 trillion from low-income programs over 10 years and “leave millions of struggling families desperate for food, shelter and health care.” In all, more than 60 percent of the cuts would come from low-income programs.

Ryan’s recent expressions of deep concern for the poor contradict his record of statements where he warns darkly, “This is a future in which we will transform our social safety net into a hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency.” Ryan’s newfound caring hardly matches his consistent voting pattern against extended unemployment benefits, a rise in the minimum wage, aid in preventing foreclosures, and support for restrictions on union organizing and for “free-trade” agreements that drive down U.S. wages and foster the relocation of American jobs and capital to Colombia, South Korea, and Panama.

While Ryan prattles on about the notion of “subsidiarity”—a Church-approved doctrine holding that problems should be resolved at the most localized government level possible—his proposals seem determined to make the government a subsidiary of corporations and the richest 1 percent. For example, one little-discussed element of Ryan’s budget proposal would entirely strip the government of any power to tax the foreign subsidiaries of U.S.-based corporations, which would create a huge incentive for American firms to relocate even more jobs from Ryan’s de-industrializing district to nations like Mexico and China.

Although the nation’s major media have been touting Ryan as a rising star and potential vice presidential running mate of Romney, the Ryan budget would have a particularly brutal impact on Ryan’s southeastern Wisconsin’s district in deindustrializing factory towns and struggling rural areas. In Ryan’s hometown of Janesville, hollowed out by the pre-Christmas 2008 shutdown of its giant GM plant, the average wage fell from $23.27 in 2007 to $18.82 in 2010.

The results are grimly predictable. Janesville has been afflicted by rising abuse against women and a major increase in child abuse and neglect. Child poverty has nearly doubled to 47.1 percent since 2000, and the town has also experienced a near-doubling in suicides over the past two years. 

The nuns’ critique of Ryan is similar to that of the much more conservative U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops. The bishops stated that the national budget must require shared sacrifice by all, including “raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and fairly addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs." The Ryan budget, they said, "fails to meet these moral criteria.” Yet, as Mary Curtis reported for the Washington Post, “The next day, the Vatican announced disciplinary action against a group of American nuns for offenses including sponsoring conferences that featured 'a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.' ”

Undeterred, the nuns have pressed ahead with their nine-state bus trip, with their first stop in Ryan’s hometown of Janesville. Greeted by a crowd of some 300 supporters, the nuns—led by Sister Simone Campbell—spoke to the crowd and presented Ryan’s representative with their statement.

Later that day, the nuns traveled to Milwaukee where about 100 mostly Latino workers at Palermo’s Pizza have been on strike to achieve union recognition (an NLRB election is set for July 6) and an end to management using Immigration Services to harass the workers. The workers have been organized by Voces de la Frontera, an immigrants rights group that has developed a strong relationship with the AFL-CIO (whose president, Rich Trumka, addressed Voces’ annual May Day rally in 2011.)

 “The results of the nuns’ visit to the picket line were very positive,” says Joe Shansky, communications director of Voces. “It really lifted morale.”

The visit to the strikers’ event drove home the connection between the corporate class war in the workplace and Republican class war waged via the budget. “There’s nothing more important than the right to organize in the workplace,” declared Sister Campbell.


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Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcommunications.org/zspace/rogerdbybee.

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