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Attacks on NY Public Sector Workers Intensify: How Can Labor Fight Back?

Public sector workers in New York State and City continue to be attacked by Governor Cuomo and Mayor “1%” Bloomberg. These attacks are part of a nationwide effort, in fact, as part of an international strategy, to make the workers both in the public and private sector pay for the continuing crisis of capitalism. The working class can stop these attacks and go on to the offensive, but for this to happen we need a different policy from the labor leaders.

Attacks in NY State

Democratic Governor Cuomo has implemented austerity since he took office more than two years ago. In addition to cutting state spending on education and social programs, he has launched an attack against state workers, especially those in Civil Service Employees Association/AFSCME and the Public Employees Federation.

First, Cuomo forced the state unions to take a contract with all sorts of givebacks: 0% increase for three years; workers must pay a greater part of the costs for health insurance; and similar austerity measures, or else the state work force would face large layoffs. The CSEA, under the leadership of Danny Donohue, caved in to Cuomo’s request. Donohue is now running for AFSCME national president.

The PEF at first rejected the contract, but the leadership offered no way forward to the members. As Cuomo began to implement the layoffs, there was a “re-vote” and they accepted the contract as well. Republican Mayor Bloomberg in NYC then asked the city unions, who have been working without a contract for more than two years—the teachers have been without a contract even longer than that—to accept similar terms as the state workers. The city unions have rejected this and there has been no bargaining.

Next came the pension “de-form.” NY public sector workers are categorized by various pension tier numbers, with Tier 1 being the best, and Tier 5 being the worst, until now, with the creation of Tier 6. Cuomo’s Democratic predecessor, Governor David Patterson, had got the state unions to accept Pension Tier 5, which was worse than Tier 4, for all new employees and for employees who had not yet joined the retirement system.

Patterson also forced local police throughout the state and the NYC police into Tier 3 rather than Tier 4 (due to the particular benefits included, Tier 3 is considered worse than Tier 4). This means police must now work at least 22 years, rather than 20 years before retirement, and really must work 25 years to get a similar retirement benefit as under the Tier 4 pension. Patterson also imposed Tier 5 on the state workers, but not NYC employees.

Class-conscious workers know that firefighters are part of the working class, and that police officers are part of the state apparatus that big business uses to suppress workers. However, when the capitalist class and their politicians attack the wages and benefits of the police, we support the rank-and-file police against these attacks for two reasons.  First, any downgrading of the police pension will also be used against the public sector workers as a whole. Second, by supporting the rank and file of the police unions in their battle for a better pension, this can create stronger links with them and their unions and the labor movement as a whole against the bosses and their government. These links could help out in future movements. We saw this in Wisconsin in 2011, as some unionized police officers supported the public sector union movement, even though they were exempt from Governor Walker’s immediate attacks.

Given Patterson’s achievements and his own victory on the state contract, Cuomo then decided he could move toward a Tier 6 pension for non-uniform employees of the state and local governments, including NYC. Cuomo knew he could count on the Republican-controlled State Senate, but the labor leaders thought that the Democratic-controlled Assembly led by Democrat Speaker Sheldon Silver would save the day.

Pension “de-form”

Cuomo’s extremely draconian pension “de-form” includes 401k plans as substitutes for real pensions. This enabled Silver to get the NY Assembly to pass this horrible pension tier, while Silver claimed he “prevented the worse” from happening. The fact is, if the Assembly had passed nothing, the pension would have remained as Tier 4! So much for the “friends of labor” like Sheldon Silver and the Democrats in the Assembly! Even Assemblyman Dick Gottfried, one of the most “left” Democrats, voted for this bill. We should also remember that the so-called NY “Working Families Party,” which is a “left” cover for the Democrats, endorsed Cuomo for election and he ran on their ballot line as well.

Now comes the latest attack, the creation of the Tier 6 pension. This applies to all future workers who join the pension system, as well as those already working who for some reason had not joined the pension plan by April 1, 2012. Under Tier 6 you cannot retire with full benefits until age 63. The old system allowed for retirement at age 62 (57 for some NYC workers).  Any NYC worker retiring between ages 55 to 62 will now get a larger premium taken out of their retirement benefits for early retirement. Also, workers in this tier will have to pay anywhere from 3% to 7% of their gross salary, depending on their pay level, for their entire career, as a mandatory contribution. Basically, workers are paying for their own benefit. In the past, pensions represented a kind of “deferred wages,” set aside by the employer and paid upon retirement. Now the workers themselves have to pay out of pocket during their working years.

What can the labor movement do to fight and win?

Many workers do not know that the wonderful pension that used to exist, known as Tier1, Plan A, was brought about by massive strikes in the 1960s and early 1970s by NYC municipal workers. The unions challenged the Taylor Law, the state law that punishes strikes and job actions for public sector workers with a fine of two days’ pay for each day of work missed.

The unions were so successful that then-Governor Rockefeller made pension terms the reserve of government and not subject to collective bargaining. Since the 1970s fiscal crisis in NYC and other attacks over the last few decades, new pension tiers were implemented that made the benefits worse. Now that Tier 6 has been implemented, what is to stop the politicians from making a Tier 7 or 8? Or eventually eliminating pensions altogether as the bosses have done in the private sector?

All of the value that is created in society comes from the labor of the working class. Manufactured goods, buildings and electricity only exist due to someone’s labor.

In addition, the functioning of the private sector economy depends on public education, which educates the work force. Public roads allow supplies and goods to be transported from place to place. Public transportation allows the private sector workers to get to work and home. Public sewage and sanitation infrastructure allows us to live and function in a relatively healthy environment. This allows the private sector bosses to make their big profits by exploiting their work force and by reaping the benefits of infrastructure and services provided by the public sector workers as well!

We need the labor leadership to make this clear to all of the rank and file and to society at large. If the labor leaders explain this and are willing to mobilize the membership to fight against these attacks, this will dramatically change the situation. The labor leaders must explain to the membership what is necessary to win our battles for decent wage increases, better pensions, and no more give-backs. If the big business politicians know that labor is going to mobilize the membership and is willing to take action, then we can start turning things around.

We will also have a much better chance at winning if the public sector unions can unite with the private sector unions. The public sector unions should run independent labor candidates in this year’s elections and invite the private sector unions to do so as well. Run workers for the NY state legislature, the U.S. Congress, and U.S. Senate. Run on the slogan to elect a worker to public office on a worker’s wage—any extra salary above that will be donated back to the movement.

The program should state that the richest 1% must be made to pay for the crisis of their system! We need a better pension and it should cover all public and private sector workers and be paid for by Wall Street and big business. If labor did this, it could count on active support from many around the Occupy movement. A pension that establishes a retirement age of 55 would also create more jobs and can win support from the unemployed and youth.

All of the union offices throughout NYC and NY State can be used to make this campaign effective. Union newspapers can get the word out. The size of this campaign would force coverage in the big business media, although we know they would try to discredit this movement. There is so much anger against the system that labor candidates this November would have a huge impact and transform the public debate.

This kind of campaign in New York would be felt around the country. California workers are being attacked as are workers in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Utah, and in fact everywhere. The NY labor movement would become a reference point for the entire country.
However, politicians like Obama, Romney, Cuomo, and Bloomberg will keep up the attack if they see weakness. We know that if the labor leadership continues with its present policies, the future will give us more of the same. It’s time for a change of course!


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