A war is being waged on public sector workers. Every day in the media, a new call is made for attacks on “greedy unions,” with the “haves” being portrayed as public sector workers and with the “have nots” being everyone else. From the tabloids to The Economist, from Fox News to the movie screen, the corporate media screams, “make the public sector pay!”
The politicians are getting in on the act as well. Even “left” Democrats like Jerry Brown in California are singing with the chorus for harsh attacks on services, wages and benefits (particularly pensions). Meanwhile, Obama wants to cut off assistance to the needy for heating costs and make it more difficult for working-class people to own homes.
This is not just an economic attack. State and local governments are looking to slash workers’ rights to strike and even to form unions in some cases. They want to bring the “open shop South” up North with this attack violation of workers’ rights coming to life in New Hampshire while the Wisconsin Governor threatens to “bring in the National Guard” to assault unions.
Also, this is not just “another round of budget cuts.” The attacks being planned over the next two fiscal years could bring a devastating decrease in living standards and working class organization. After the depleting of unionized manufacturing, they are planning “NAFTA in the public sector.” Union density in the public sector stands at 36% compared to only 7% in the private sector, and the bosses are out to change this. They intend to weaken and even break many unions.
Big business carried out similar attacks on private sector unions and jobs in the last thirty years with jobs outsourced in the search for cheap labor. Union manufacturing has already been gutting, and the corporate quest for super-profits leads to a drive for lower wages, less benefits and an attack on workers’ rights. The labor movement and community organizations should have rallied together against outsourcing, union-busting and free trade agreements instead of letting our living standards stagnate; now, we have to come together to defend the public sector
The results of this onslaught would not just be layoffs, lower salaries and decreased benefits for state and local workers. Crucial services would also be slashed such as education, firefighting, health care, elder care, child care, infrastructure, welfare, roads, libraries, etc. The decreased services, of course, are being largely ignored by the corporate media as they pave the way for union-busting and privatization.
This agenda is partially a conscious attempt to lower costs and return to increased profitability for U.S. capitalism to try to once again assert itself on a world scale. Also, pragmatically, the ruling class needs to deal with state budget gaps totaling over $125 billion in 2011 and a combined $350 billion in 2011 and 2012 (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities). Every state – except Vermont – is required by law to balance its budget every year.
“The harder you look at their budgets, the worse their plight seems. Years of relying on accounting gimmicks disguised what was a bad underlying fiscal position even before the recession began. The downturn is a budgetary calamity in any event, but it is uncovering problems of much longer standing.” (Financial Times 1/21/11)
The spending cuts have reached the federal level as well with Obama’s recent budget. With a Republican House, a screaming mad Tea Party caucus and Obama himself having set up a hawkish deficit commission, there is the possibility of further federal cuts on top of the state and local slashing.
Federal Funding and Taxation
As the U.S. ruling class ripped up the social contract of the post-war boom in the 1970s, tax codes began to steeply favor the super-rich and corporations while federal funding was cut off to bankrupt states and cities. This trend has accelerated.
Just 50 years ago, all of the richest top 1% in U.S. society paid over half of their income in taxes, and now the 400 billionaires only pay 18%. Meanwhile, the average U.S. citizen pays over 25% of their income in taxes. During the post-war boom, taxes on corporations accounted for one-quarter of all federal tax revenue, while now two-thirds of corporations pay absolutely no income tax (Economic Policy Institute).
These figures illustrate that social programs have been consciously underfunded by the ruling class and that workers and middle-class people are being forced to pay taxes that are too high. Local education budgets are often decided based on votes to either increase taxes on ordinary homeowners or cut funding to schools. This is a false dichotomy created to serve the ruling class’s current outlook on taxation and social services.
This corporate outlook underlies the current budget gaps and the attempt to put the crisis on the backs of the working people who didn’t create this mess. Unless faced with a mass movement from below involving the public sector unions, ordinary people and the communities they serve, then the “austerity consensus” in the tops of the ruling class is likely to continue.
We cannot fall into the liberal trap of calling for higher taxation on working people or the middle-class. This would end the much needed outreach by public sector unions to the community before it even starts. The call to action to defend services must connect to the consciousness of anti-banker anger and the need for a united movement of workers and youth against cuts, appealing to common interests for well-funded services, good jobs, union rights and even possibly lower taxation on working people while cutting the war funding.
Socialists call for taxes on the corporations and the super-rich, but this cannot be seen as a panacea. If the corporations were taxed heavily enough, then they would threaten to pick up and leave. To combat that we have to call for taking into public ownership all corporations that outsource jobs.
While we can say that “the money is there!” we should also be prepared to argue for public ownership to use the available resources when the money isn’t there as well. We shouldn’t just pose our demands as solutions within the framework of capitalism but also use them as part of a fighting program to point towards confrontation with the billionaires and their politicians.
How to Stop the Cuts
All forces in the labor movement and the Left need to turn their attention towards these decisive attacks on the public sector. This is a defining moment for class relations in this country, the same way that PATCO was in the early 1980s or that NAFTA was in the mid-90s. It is not a foregone conclusion that this attempted transformation will go as well for big business as the examples mentioned above.
Coalitions against cuts need to be formed with a basic working class program of opposition to all cuts and the need for good jobs and services with definitive proposals about next steps forward for the movement and funding mechanisms for social programs. It would be wrong to think that union leaderships will take this up without organized pressure from below. Rather, we need to build campaigns with the forces ready to move into struggle now with a program and orientation to reach broader layers of the class.
We need a movement to have democratic discussion and debate in order to clarify issues, involve as many people as possible and mobilize the largest numbers. Also, there cannot just be an anti-cuts coalition declared that can expect widespread authority from the start. This has to be built up through taking on specific campaigns and building movements to gain widespread support.
We need to start coalitions linking up the small isolated specific campaigns and bringing together activists unions, community organizations, young people and the small socialist left. Importantly, any coalition against cuts provide organizing assistance to the workers and communities being hardest hit by cuts.
Without a political threat to the capitalist parties, we are in a more difficult position to try to stop the cuts. While coalitions just in formation won’t be strong enough to run candidates, socialists need to argue for anti-cuts candidates as a step towards a workers’ party.
The logic of the capitalist system and its two parties would lead to devastation for working people and our communities. Socialists want public services under democratic workers’ control and management. But the struggle to achieve this needs to be linked to bringing into public ownership the top 500 corporations that have cut millions of jobs, and through their control of the two major parties, rob taxpayers and degrade our society.
The key class battles will likely be in the public sector over the next two years, and these battles could help to define the terrain, along with international events, of the class struggle for many years to come. All progressive thinking workers and young people need to understand the centrality of this situation and the importance of our tasks.