The attack on public workers' unions
By Mike Gimbel
Executive Board Chair, Chapter 8, Local 375, AFSCME
Privatization of public services and attacks
on public worker unions are part of a worldwide attack on
Public worker unions at the federal, state and city level
are now the largest sector of organized labor in the United
States. That is one reason why these unions are coming under
such huge attack. Whenever capitalism undergoes a serious
economic crisis, the ruling class views it as an opportunity to
take back worker gains.
During an economic crisis when jobs are scarce, the ruling
class uses the threat of unemployment to terrorize unions into
making huge concessions. As an example of the current mentality
of the U.S. ruling class, the bosses at United Airlines stuck
the knife in a little deeper, after the unions agreed to huge
concessions, by voting themselves huge bonuses.
While U.S. imperialism destroyed the infrastructure of
Yugoslavia and Iraq with bombs, it is destroying the
infrastructure here at home with massive cutbacks. Military
aggression against our class abroad is being coupled with
economic aggression against our class here at home. The wars
against Yugoslavia and Iraq, and the worldwide attack on public
ownership, have come at a time of the greatest disparity in the
distribution of wealth between rich and poor in U.S.
The capitalist economic crisis is driving the attack on
workers here at home. Billionaire New York Mayor Michael
Bloomberg demands sacrifices from those least able to do
without these public services and public jobs, while refusing
to raise taxes on the wealthy, the corporations and the banks
that have gotten wealthy by exploiting the city's workers. This
attack flows directly from the national economic policies of
recent decades of the "trickle-down theory," which has only one
purpose: shifting wealth from the poor to the rich with nothing
ever actually trickling down.
While huge tax cuts are given to the rich and billions are
siphoned off from the public infrastructure for military
re-colonization of the world, the same big business politicians
who voted away these public funds claim there is no money for
public schools, hospitals, zoos, libraries, public housing,
daycare, etc. This attack on public services is taking place in
virtually every state and every city in the U.S.
What is the difference, in the final analysis, between
bombing schools, hospitals and libraries in Iraq and closing
schools, hospitals and libraries here? In either case, working
people have lost public services that they cannot pay for out
of their pocket as the rich can. As such, workers and working
class communities are justified in viewing these public assets
as entitlements negotiated as part of a "class-wide contract,"
just as if these entitlements were added benefits in individual
Workers' pensions used to bail out city
In fact, there is even some legal basis under capitalism to
make this claim. In New York City, the 1975 financial crisis
resulted in massive cutbacks and the loss of 65,000 city worker
jobs. The city was actually broke. It could not pay either its
long-term or short-term obligations to the banks. The banks,
through the issuance of these bonds, were legally able to claim
city property as collateral. The 1975 crisis was so serious,
however, that the banks refused to loan the city any more money
because they viewed these loans as being too risky.
When the banks refused to loan the city any money in 1975,
the state and the unions created the Municipal Assistance
Corporation (Big MAC), backed by worker pension funds. They
went back to the banks and asked them to buy these MAC bonds
paying a higher rate of interest, but with extended dates for
payments. These MAC bonds are still being paid off today.
Since state funds and union pension funds were used to bail
out the city, it creates the possibility of using this as a
community/union legal claim to public property as collateral.
Of course, the capitalist courts will only view this community/
union claim seriously if workers assert their claim by
occupying the public property that is being closed.
Bloomberg is a multi-billionaire media mogul. As head of a
huge corporation, he is comfortable with giving orders and
having them obeyed, not negotiating compromises with trade
union leaders. Bloomberg is a Wall Street "blue blood"
determined to protect the corporate bottom line in the interest
of the banks.
Bloomberg views public services in the same way he would a
private business: cut money-losing services so as to guarantee
payments to the bond holders. Workers, however, should not view
these public services being cut as the foreclosed property of
the banks, even though, under capitalism, the banks have legal
rights to the property.
In order to fight these cutbacks, workers ought to view this
public property as their personal property that is being
foreclosed. We built and maintained these public assets and
invested our very working lives in them as teachers, nurses,
engineers, laborers, clerical workers, librarians, bus drivers
and so on. Working people and working class communities are the
main beneficiaries of these public assets. The banks only view
public services as "cash cows," looting tax money and mass
transit fares for their own profit.
Who has the greater need for these public assets: the
workers or the Wall Street banks? Do the rich send their kids
to public school? Do the rich, when they get sick, depend on
public hospitals? Do the rich live in public housing
The Emergency Financial Control Board was created in 1975
along with "Big MAC." The legislation that created the EFCB
requires the city to have a balanced budget. Today the city,
unlike in 1975, has operating cash, but this provision forces
Mayor Bloomberg to balance the city budget.
Bloomberg has decided to balance the budget on workers'
backs and has put the city unions in a "no win" position.
Bloomberg threatens the unions that either they agree to
massive concessions or he will lay off thousands of city
workers. Concessions you lose, layoffs you lose. Bloomberg
demands: choose one. But he adds one proviso: that even if the
unions agree to huge concessions, he may still have to resort
to layoffs anyway.
Mayor Bloomberg can be so arrogant because he has an ace up
his sleeve. It is called the Taylor Law.
The existence of the Taylor Law illustrates the difference
between private-sector and public-sector bargaining.
Public-sector unions bargain with the most powerful boss of
all, the state, which has at its beck and call all the organs
of state repression: the police, the courts, the prisons and
even the state's National Guard armed forces. When the
Transport Workers Union raised going on strike, it was
threatened under the Taylor Law with massive fines, not only on
the union and its leadership, but on each individual union
member as well. If that threat doesn't work, the state has the
power to jail union leaders, activists and individual members.
In extreme cases, the National Guard can be called in to break
Public workers fight for community
In the run-up to a public workers' strike, the ruling class
tries to put the blame on the workers. But we should all be
aware that it is these very public workers that are the
front-line of defense for the public services provided to the
community. Public workers fighting to protect their jobs are
fighting to protect this public property. The two go hand in
This public property ought to be viewed as the personal
property of every worker, public or private, unionized or
non-unionized, employed or unemployed, and as the property of
the community, even if capitalist law says it belongs to the
Therefore, we ought to view the Taylor Law as an attack on
all workers and on the community, because the only use of this
law is to deny our class, and the community we represent, the
ability to defend these public assets through a job action. It
is this very Taylor Law that hamstrings labor from defending
decades of hard-won gains for our community. Public workers are
the indispensable soldiers in defending public schools,
hospitals, daycare, libraries, zoos, parks, housing and so
This huge attack on public workers, all across the country,
is beginning to force a realization on both activist union
members and union leaders of the need to shift to the left.
This became apparent in the run-up to the Iraq war. Just three
months after AFSCME District Council 37, where I am a delegate
in the delegate assembly, overwhelmingly tabled a motion
against the war, these same delegates overwhelmingly and
enthusiastically endorsed the very same anti-war
Thus, a great opportunity for class-conscious activist
workers has arisen. Even at the height of the Vietnam War it
was very hard to get even the mildest resolution against the
war passed. Today, everything has changed. In my lifetime I
have never seen such an incredible shift to the left. It is
truly breath-taking. If ever you wanted to plunge into work in
the labor movement, now is the time. With the economic crisis
continuing to deepen, this shift in worker consciousness should
continue to deepen.
I don't see a tunnel, let alone a "light at the end of the
tunnel" of this economic crisis, and that portends a potential
future political explosion on the part of labor.
Adapted from a speech to a Workers World meeting in New
York April 25.
Reprinted from the May 8, 2003, issue of
Workers World newspaper
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