Public Sector Workers

Public Sector Workers Under Attack: Labor Must Organize and Fight Back

Warren Buffett and Barack ObamaBillionaire investor Warren Buffett once said: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” As we have explained many times in the pages of Socialist Appeal, the foreign policy of the capitalists is only an extension of their domestic policy, and vice versa. In their relentless quest for profits, they have launched vicious attacks on workers at home and abroad. After driving up the deficit to unsustainable levels by spending billions on foreign wars and on bailing out Wall Street, that war is coming forcefully home to roost, with the public sector and its heavily unionized workforce squarely on the chopping block.

Obama has unilaterally announced a wage freeze for over 2 million federal workers. That means no cost of living adjustments, which in practice means a wage cut. In New York, Wisconsin, Indiana, Maine, Missouri, and Ohio, it’s open season on public sector workers. In some states layoffs and wage freezes are all but guaranteed and in others, bans on strikes and even abolishing the right to form a union and bargain collectively are on state governments’ “to do” lists. Starving the unions of their financial base by making  it harder to collect dues is also on the order of the day in 16 states.

The campaign to scapegoat and demonize public sector workers has reached deafening proportions. Newly elected governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin has declared that the state is “Open for Business” and has worked tirelessly to artificially divide the class by saying that “We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots.” Everyone from federal and county workers to teachers and firemen are being portrayed as “greedy” and “overpaid” and are being threatened with mass layoffs and even jail time if they dare stand up for better wages, conditions, benefits, pensions and quality of service for their communities.

Never mind that bonuses and profits in bailed-out companies have reached levels even greater than before the Wall Street meltdown, the real culprit is Little Suzy’s state-funded childcare provider!

Over the last 30 years, the percentage of US workers organized in unions has declined from around 25% to less than 12% overall. But private sector unions in industries such as auto and steel took the most severe beating over this period. By 2009, just 7.2% of workers in private companies were unionized, and for the first time in history, there were more unionized workers in the public sector than in the private. Some 37% of public sector workers remain unionized, in part because it is much harder to offshore a city records office worker or a fireman than it is a steel worker or computer programer. Now that unions in private companies have been decimated, it’s time to do the same to public sector workers.

However, despite the venom spread in the media and their until-now relatively safe position in the economy, it is simply not true that public sector workers make more than private. A 2010 study by Rutgers University professor Jeffrey Keefe found that on average, they make $2,000 a year less, even when employer-provided benefits are factored in.

The real reason for the attacks is that standards of living for unionized workers are measurably higher than for their non-union counter parts because collectively, workers can better fight for a greater share of the wealth they create. But higher wages means lower profits, and given the crisis of capitalism, even small concessions such as lunch breaks and reasonable safety standards have got to go, let alone pensions and cost of living wage adjustments.

The gap between the rich and poor is now the greatest it has ever been. A record 14% of Americans now rely on food stamps. And although there are more job openings now than there have been in months, companies still aren’t hiring, as they have the luxury of picking and choosing who they hire (there are 5 workers looking to fill each available job) and can make the existing workforce do more for less in the meantime.

This is best illustrated by the fact that gross domestic product, the broadest measure of economic activity, has recovered 84% of the output that was lost during the recession, but the labor market has recouped only 11% of the jobs that were lost. In other words, as Lakshman Achuthan, managing director of Economic Cycle Research Institute, put it: “We’re producing almost as much as we did before the recession, with 7.5 million less people. The difference is going into the productivity numbers and corporate profits.”

The latest reading on productivity, which measures the economic output of each hour Americans work during a quarter, was up 2.5% from a year ago in the third quarter of 2010,  the sixth straight quarter of gains of that level or higher. That accounts almost entirely for the average growth in GDP over the same period. But this cannot go on forever. There are limits to how much workers can be squeezed. While it is impossible to say exactly when or how this will manifest itself, it is a law of history that sooner or later, the workers will reach the breaking point and will fight back.

After the midterm elections, many of those who continued to make apologies for Obama’s anti-worker policies, hoped against hope that he would finally “get the message” that people are disenchanted with his policies and would unveil a long-awaited “New New Deal.” But his late-year tax cuts for the rich deal with Republicans and his even more pro-big business cabinet appointments make it crystal clear whose interests he really represents. These appointments are not the cause of his anti-worker policies, but rather, a reflection of where he really stands.

The bipartisan Bowles-Simpson Commission, which outlined sweeping cuts in social spending and advised an increase in the retirement age, will be the blueprint for the cuts to come. Obama will inevitably find a “compromise,” which will mean serious cuts in our already precarious standard of living. From the impending battle over increasing the federal spending debt ceiling to repeal of the anemic health care bill, the Republicans will continue to bully the Democrats, who will continue to cave and compromise, selling out the futures of millions of Americans. The reason is simple: the ruling class needs to drive down wages and cut social services, and they don’t care which capitalist party gets the job done for them.

The Republicans are a truer expression of the viciousness of the bosses, with the Democrats as junior partners. Due to the lack of a mass workers’ alternative, the Democrats are able to play the role of the “good cop” of the two party system. But when the good cop’s good looks and smooth lies have run their course, it’s time again for the bad cop — often more enraged and brutal than ever. Not wanting to lose out on the considerable perks of power, the “good cop” is scrambling to out do the bad one.

Shooting of Gabrielle GiffordsThe shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is yet another reflection of the growing polarization in American society; of the effects of the poisonous rhetoric of the Tea Party, and the passive complicity of the Democrats. The frustration and feelings of impotence brewing in the depths of American society burst forth in a hail of gunfire in Tucson, Arizona, killing several people, including a 9-year-old girl. Socialist Appeal condemns individual acts of violence such as these, just as we condemn the use of state terror by the capitalists against other countries and their own people. Such actions can never bring about fundamental change or substitute for the collective, conscious action of the masses. But it is undeniable that millions of others feel similar frustration and do not know how to channel it.

Some have raised the possibility of challenging Obama in the primaries for the 2012 presidential election. Bernie Sanders and others have come up as  possible alternates. On one level this reflects a healthy rejection of Obama’s policies and a search for a left solution. But the primary election system is controlled by big business through its money and control of the media, and in practice, the Democrats would use it to again pull off a “bait and switch” by holding out the possibility of a more “progressive” candidate, only to offer the pro-war and pro-big business Obama in the end, calling on voters to “hold their noses” and vote for him anyway as the “lesser evil.” It is only through independent political action that the working class can make its power felt.

Many on the left, including some former Obama supporters offer withering critiques of his policies. However, they offer no alternative other than building a future “movement” in the abstract. We are supremely confident that out of the great swirl of struggles that will inevitably take place in the coming years, many movements will emerge. But we think that the motor force necessary to ensure such a movement can fight on a mass scale and actually win should be clearly stated: organized labor, starting with the AFL-CIO and Change to Win. We also believe such a movement will of necessity require a united political point of attack: a Labor Party.

Political parties are the political expression of this or that class or layer in society. Although palace intrigues and civil wars in the Roman Empire often led to the replacement of one ruling clique by another, in the final analysis, all Roman emperors based themselves on the big land and slave owners that dominated that society.

So although they may represent different sectors and interests of the capitalist class, which is by no means 100% united in its outlook, both the Democrats and the Republicans represent that class. This is why we insist on the need for a mass labor party based on the unions: a workers’ party to represent the working class majority.

It is normally the case that cuts “trickle down” from the federal government to states and municipalities, which can make it harder to focus the fight back. But this time around, the attacks are clearly coming from the top, providing us with a tremendous opportunity to organize a serious and nationally coordinated fight back.

One Nation MarchThe October 2, 2010 “One Nation” march on Washington, organized by the AFL-CIO, showed the enormous potential for such mobilizations. The time for making excuses for Obama is long past. He is simply not going to deliver, even on modest promises like the Employee Free Choice Act (card check). Now’s the time for the labor leaders, starting with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, to mobilize the members, resources and shop steward networks of the unions to fight back at the workplace, in the streets, and on the political front. It’s time to build a mass march on Washington to demand jobs, health care and education for all. If the labor movement lets the public workers be defeated, this will further weaken the private sector unions. An injury to one is an injury to all!

We understand that it is only on the basis of their own experience that workers will come to understand the need for a decisive break with their long-time “allies” in the Democratic Party. But life under capitalism has some very harsh lessons in store, and we are sure US workers will draw the necessary conclusions.

Hands Off the Public Sector Workers! Hands Off Social Security! Mobilize the Labor Movement to Fight Back! Break with the Democrats and Build a Labor Party!

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