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Cuomo and De Blasio Attack Public Sector Workers

It is said that one little pigeon in NYC creates 25 pounds of excrement per year—but that is nothing compared to what comes out of the mouths of capitalist politicians! Recently, two major public sector unions have reached tentative contract settlements: the Transport Workers Union (TWU) and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). Mayor Bill de Blasio, who some have called a “radical Democrat,” negotiated this deal with the teachers’ union.  Governor Cuomo, also a liberal Democrat, had a decisive role in the Transport Workers’ tentative settlement.

deblasiouftThese contracts again expose the Democrats as the other party of big business. Even de Blasio,  the leader of the “Democratic Party’s left-wing,” is attacking the unionized city workers—especially teachers—as de Blasio claims to be so fond of education.  American capitalism must continue to drive down the wages and benefits of the working class and this is the overall policy of both Democrats and Republicans. What are the facts on these tentative agreements?

Transport Workers Union

The TWU is promised 8% over five years, retroactively going back to 2012 through 2017: 1%, 1%, 2%, 2% and 2%. This, while the national rate of inflation for the last 5 years (2009-2014) was 10.14%. Most economists predict that inflation will rise because of the Federal Reserve’s policy of low interest rates and so-called Quantitative Easing. During 2008 and 2009, the negative growth of the economy kept inflation very low. According to The Chief newspaper, NYC metropolitan area inflation was 3.7% for 2012 and 2103 combined, and is expected to be 5% for 2014 and 2015 combined. That is 8.7% for just 4 years!

These statistics show that the Transport Workers will see their pay cut in real terms. But wait—there’s more! In past contracts, the Transport Workers working 40 hours per week were made to pay 1.5% of their yearly wage to health premiums. Now it will be 2% of the yearly wage. This really means that they got only 7.5% increase for five years. In addition to this, newly hired TWU members will take five years instead of three to get to the top of the pay scale.  

Explaining all of this, Socialist Appeal supporters called on the workers to vote down this proposed contract. However, 82% of those who voted on ratification ended up supporting the contract. Why did this happen?

Presently, there is no organized opposition in the union. In the past, the TWU had an organized opposition called New Directions. Many of the leading members of New Directions were ex-leftists who adapted themselves to “practical politics” of the “here and now.” However, now that they have won control of the leadership, they end up following the logic of the previous union leaders! If you accept the logic and limits of capitalism, then the working class must see its wages and benefits driven down.

The TWU used to have a tradition of “no contract, no work.” However, the TWU has worked more than two years without a contract. John Samuelson, the head of the TWU, and his executive board, did not even attempt to mobilize his membership against the MTA and New York state governor Andrew Cuomo. The TWU had allies in the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) workers, who are also without a contract and may strike this summer, and this is an election year for Cuomo; but they did not even attempt to fight back. It is better to fight hard and lose than to give up without a fight. But the real tragedy is that they could have fought and won, especially appealing to support from the city’s workforce, most of whom have been without a contract for more than 3 years.

The combination of working for years without a raise, the lack of effective leadership, and no real organized opposition led many workers to abstain or hold their noses and vote yes to ratify this contract.

United Federation of Teachers

The UFT got 18% over 9 years, but the first 8% was merely the 4% and 4% that the other city unions had already received in the last round of contracts. Keep in mind that the national rate of inflation for the last 9 years (2005-2014) was 20.99%, almost certainly even higher in NYC.

Bloomberg had resisted giving the teachers the city-wide “pattern bargaining” contract of the last round. Although de Blasio now claims to give them that pattern, they actually got less; the retroactive 8% will not be paid by the second paycheck after ratification, which is the usual case, but in increments:  every October from the year 2015, up to October 2020, but skipping October 2016. This is like giving NYC a six-and-a-half-year loan at 0% interest rate! If a teacher retires before this, they get the money, but others who leave before the dates will not be paid their retroactive pay. 

The teachers’ last contract ended on October 31, 2009. Under the new contract, the teachers are to be retroactively paid 4% on November 1, 2009 and another 4% on November 1, 2010, then have a 0% increase from then until May 1, 2013 when they get another 1%. They are to receive a $1,000 lump sum for this 18-month period, about $580 after federal and local taxes. The remaining increases on the subsequent May firsts are 1%, 1%, 1.5%, 2.5% and 3%. 

As can be seen above, even the raises are paid in stages, which is highly unusual. Teachers will not get paid an 8% raise from 2009 and 2010, right after ratification, but will get 2% raises every May, starting with May 2015! This information only came out a few weeks after the deal was announced. Michael Mulgrew, the head of the teachers’ union, has set this dangerous precedent for all public employees in NYC and the state.

On top of this, the contract makes it easier to fire teachers. Usually, unionized, non-probationary workers can be fired, but this has to be “for cause” and proven before an arbitrator.  Any weakening of this process will weaken the union, as management will surely go after union activists. This comes on top of the UFT allowing a weakening of their school-based seniority system in past contracts.

Last, but not least, the UFT has agreed to health concessions: they must provide $1.3 billion in health care savings, and if the union cannot do this, “mediator” Martin Scheinman would be empowered to impose specific savings. The union leaders claim that savings can be accomplished without raising premiums, but one way or another, members will be made to pay for this, perhaps in the form of higher co-pays and deductibles. Or possibly, more services in the basic plan might be shifted to riders, meaning that if you still want certain coverage you have to pay extra. This further cuts into wages.

The Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) caucus, the opposition in the teachers union, opposed ratification. They are a relatively small caucus in a union of 100,000 members and the Mulgrew leadership used its control of the apparatus to get people to feel that there was no alternative.  The teachers have not had a raise since 2009 and like the transit workers, they felt under pressure and that a “no” vote would not bring a better deal under the present leadership.  Therefore, the contract was ratified by a 77% vote.  This means de Blasio will try to make the last 7 years of the teachers contract into the “pattern” imposed on the rest of NYC workforce.

Which way forward?

The workers in the public sector have suffered since the 1970s. Pensions have gone down from Tier 1 to Tier 6. Tier 6 was  another gift from Mr. Cuomo. With several zero-increase years, our wages have not kept up with the cost of living—especially in NYC where housing is extremely expensive.

Some public sector workers are not paid very much, and the New York Times recently reported that 46% of the NYC population lives at or below 150% of the federal poverty level (which amounts to a little over $30,000/year for a family of four).

The public sector workers have enormous potential power. Imagine if the TWU, the LIRR workers, the teachers, office workers, caseworkers, accountants, school lunch workers, and road repair crews all stopped working. Imagine if instead, they organized huge demonstrations, clogging the streets of Manhattan. This could turn things around very quickly!

Public sector workers have to link up with workers in the private sector. We know that if the politicians are successful in their attacks against the public sector, driving down our wages and pensions, they will then go after the private sector worker—and they already have. In fact, the only way to help stop the race to the bottom starts with all workers uniting together and saying “enough is enough!”

NYC workers can also look to the Chicago teachers, who by mobilizing their forces and winning support from parents and students, pushed back the worst of Democratic Party Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s cuts. If the NYC public sector unions fight and win this battle, it could start to turn things around throughout NYC and serve as a reference point nationally.

Our tasks: build the opposition

The leaders of the NYC public sector unions have not even tried to mobilize the membership. They allowed the contracts to expire and organized no response to the mayor. They expect that since it has been so long since we received a raise, the workers will accept anything. This is not the leadership the working class deserves and requires.

With the present leadership, things will keep going from bad to worse. What we need is a leadership that bases itself on the real balance of forces. The workers are the overwhelming majority and have unstoppable power if they are organized to use it. There is plenty of money in the hands of big business and the wealthy, but they will not give it up without a fight. Organizing an opposition that will harness this power is one of the most pressing tasks facing NYC workers. 

Some rank-and-file teachers are helping to build the MORE caucus. Some rank-and-file unionists at other city agencies are building PWU (Public Workers United). The growth of these oppositions and their struggle to defeat these bad tentative agreements needs more support.

At the same time, the activists in these oppositions must learn the lessons from New Directions in the TWU. The growing opposition currents must also challenge the system which is causing the regression. In all our struggles we should not be afraid to advocate socialist policies—this is the only way to break the box of poverty that the rich want us to live in.

Last but not least, we must also fight to build a genuine mass labor party, based on the power of the unions, to take on big business, and fight for socialist policies. This is the only way to challenge anti-labor legislation such as the Taylor Law, which imposes stiff fines and penalties on strikes and job actions, and to pass legislation that will improve all workers’ lives.

No to giveback contracts!

Full retroactive wage increases with full cost of living adjustments and no givebacks!

No to cuts to our health benefits or increased out-of-pocket costs!

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