Public Workers Under Attack


This article is based on a presentation by the author to a recent Socialist Action forum in Philadelphia. Marty Goodman is a transit worker in New York City, and a longtime activist in Transport Workers Union Local 100.
On May 26 a Wisconsin judge voided the infamous legislation that would have radically restricted union bargaining rights for public workers. Next, the state Supreme Court will consider the case on June 6. In the meantime, the Democrats are crowing like roosters over their role in the fight against the bill. Unfortunately, what had been a grand moment for labor was reduced to a mere bargaining chip for the Democratic Party politicians.

Wisconsin Gov. Walker announced his “budget repair bill” on Feb. 11, which included stripping public unions of bargaining rights and dues check-off, crippling unions financially. After Walker announced his bill, angry nurses and teachers responded with a historic mass sickout. Thousands of teachers, nurses, and all manner of public and private workers, including high school students, descended on the capitol building in Madison. Soon some AFL-CIO union locals joined in.
Beginning Feb. 15, protesters started occupying the capitol building itself, which lasted 18 glorious days. It looked like the mass rebellions in the Middle East! In fact, protest signs like “We speak Egyptian” began to appear. Firefighters and private sector workers, not targeted by the bill, sat in too.
On Feb. 21, the Southern Central Federation of Labor, the local chapter of the AFL-CIO for the Madison and Southern Central Wisconsin area, voted to make preparations for a general strike. On Feb. 26, 100,000 protesters rallied in the capital, the largest Wisconsin rally since Vietnam. The struggle became a movement. On March 3, the “Kill the Whole Bill Coalition” of workers led a protest of 7000 in opposition to all cuts and concessions. A jazz band led a Dixieland style funeral procession to the capitol.
Meanwhile, however, Democrats and union bureaucrats were negotiating with cops for a peaceful exit from the capitol building, after earlier urging workers to go back to work. A debate among the occupiers erupted, with militants urging holding their ground. The cops, while appearing for a time to be on the side of workers, in the end ejected the protesters from the building—true to their job as servants of the ruling class.
Leaders of the state teachers union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), and the public employees union, AFSCME, advised members to go back to work on March 10, the day the bill passed. The Democrats quickly moved workers off the streets—the source of their power—and into impotent doorbell-ringing campaigns to recall politicians.
In response to the attacks, several leaders of the public sector unions, such as WEAC and AFSCME, shamelessly said that they would agree to put health and pension rights on the chopping block, slamming state workers for what amounted to an 8 percent pay cut. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in his speeches that he approved of their willingness to accept givebacks. What the labor bureaucrats were really begging for was “just give us collective bargaining rights so we can keep our union offices, perks, and big salaries”—and to hell with the rights of workers!
But Walker had other plans. He was intent on smashing the public unions, not merely to please Tea Party cretins but on behalf of a significant part of the ruling class. The financial elite—the capitalist class—is using the economic crisis to restructure labor relations and grind workers down to subsistence wages.
The right-wing governor wanted to rip up legally binding contracts made between workers and the state. And Walker threatened to send in the National Guard in response to strike action. How could he get away with it? The basic democratic right to negotiate a contract is in the Wagner Act, passed after years of union struggle in the 1930s; but that right was never extended to public employees.
Public workers targeted in New York
Similar developments are taking place in other states—including New York, where Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who opposes even the modest so-called “millionaires tax” that many unions support, is threatening 9000 layoffs in his state budget. His budget was passed on time for the first time since 1983. There was no real fight from so-called “progressive Democrats” against Cuomo’s savage cuts.
Cuomo, like Republicans and Democrats nationwide, is attacking workers’ pensions as being too generous. But a recent study in The New York Times showed that state and local pensions average only $19,000—hardly lavish. To underscore this bipartisan attack on pensions, “progressive” Democrats and Republicans ganged-up on New York workers by overwhelmingly passing an inferior pension plan for newly hired state workers in December 2009. It will save “billions,” they say.
In New York State, where unions provided thousands of doorbell ringers and millions for Cuomo’s campaign, smashing unions Wisconsin-style is not necessary at this time for the Democrats. Decades of concessions have already made unions low-hanging fruit for Wall Street bond holders.
The New York State Taylor Law forbids strikes and job actions by public workers, with severe penalties. The law was passed by Democrats and Republicans in the wake of the successful 1966 transit strike. In many countries throughout the world the right to strike is considered a human right. N.Y. transit workers asserted their human rights in 2005 and shut the city down!
Sacrosanct in all the talk about the New York budget is $7 billion in state service debt to the banks and Wall Street crooks. What’s more, although Cuomo claims a $10 billion budget deficit this year, over the next year $15 billion will be spent by the state’s taxpayers for wars most people oppose. (I’m proud to say that my union, TWU Local 100—as well as 1199 SEIU and Teamsters Local 808—endorsed the national “Money for jobs, not war” rally in New York’s Union Square on April 9, sponsored by the United National Antiwar Committee.)
In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg has proposed a budget that includes laying off 4100 teachers, 5400 city workers total, and closing 20 firehouses, slashing aid to seniors, HIV support and drug counseling, etc. Bloomberg—one of the richest men in the world—is exploiting racist, anti-union perceptions in his push for a law abolishing the seniority rights of teachers. Bloomberg is slashing $500 million in public education, while boosting corporate charter school funding with $139 million.
In response to Bloomberg, a union-based organization, the May 12 Coalition, issued a report identifying a whopping $1.5 billion in outrageous city subsidies, tax giveaways, and loopholes to New York’s top banks and corporations. Ending this robbery would eliminate the need for any layoffs or cuts, leaving enough to create needed jobs and services.
Some $200 million has been slashed from public transit services alone, with the prospect of more cuts and layoffs in New York City’s public transit. Last year, alongside massive service cuts, 900 TWU Local 100 members were laid off, although many are slowly returning. The first round of layoffs began on Mother’s Day weekend, fueled by racism. The majority were African American, Hispanic, and immigrant workers.
By the way, Obama’s latest budget whacked some $3 billion from aid to local transportation, a highly unionized, mostly minority sector. Across the nation last year, some 3000 public transit workers were laid off. In April Larry Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, said, “This administration was indistinguishable from the prior one with respect to transportation aid.”
Obama brags that this year’s overall federal budget contains the biggest cuts in history. That would make his budget worse than Bush II, worse than Ronald Reagan. And while Obama was cutting federal jobs, the overall unemployment rate rose in April to 9%, and the rate for Black people jumped to 16.1%. The joblessness rate for Black youth has reached the staggering rate of more than 40%. It’s no surprise that Obama disappointed so many, especially unions. Obama received more money from Wall Street than his Republican rival McCain.
A lost opportunity
The huge mobilizations in Wisconsin and Ohio caught the imagination of millions of workers everywhere. A recent poll found that 64% nationally said public employees should have the right to bargain collectively, and 72% had a favorable opinion of public employees. Given the sympathy of most workers, a struggle that included labor solidarity protests, strikes, and slowdowns could have been launched. A spark could have ignited a wave of labor militancy throughout the country.
But what happened? After passing a general strike resolution, Wisconsin’s Democratic Party-oriented labor leaders backed down. Rather than calling for a showdown with union busters, workers were told to leave the picket line and participate in a recall campaign against elected Republicans. Why? So that Democrats, who also vow to attack their living standards, could replace them.
Decades of concession-style bargaining have left the unions prostrate, their leaders out of ideas and wedded to the Democratic Party—one of the twin parties of the boss class—as they maneuver to stifle struggles within the confines of electoral politics.
Instead, we need bold, decisive action. Socialist Action calls on labor leaders to convene a giant rank-and-file Congress of Labor to discuss democratically what measures must be taken to defeat capital’s wave of attacks, and to put such measures into motion.
Along with this, what’s needed is a complete break with the Democratic Party and the construction of an independent mass labor party—a party that will fight for workers and be accountable to rank-and-file unionists and all working people.
In addition, we need a revolutionary socialist party that knows how to apply the lessons of the workers movement to drive the struggle forward. Capitalism’s innate drive for profits at any cost is destroying this planet and its people. We need a revolution that can bring the working class into political power—and we invite every one of you to join us in that task.
> The article above was written by Marty Goodman and first appeared in the June 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.