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The attack on public workers' unions

By Mike Gimbel
New York
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 ownership.

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. history.

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 union contracts.

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 projects?

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 the strike.

Public workers fight for community services

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 hand.

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 banks.

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 on.

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 resolution.

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

This article is copyright under a Creative Commons License.
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