As State workers, we pay dues to a dozen separate unions to lead us in our quest for fair contracts. Yet since the furloughs were imposed, our unions have offered little or no resistance. Why? Because they are all committed to the strategies of business unionism, which accepts the boss-imposed limits on how labor can fight, while allowing management to impose its will with little or no resistance. The Governor tested us with 18 months of furloughs and our unions rolled over. Now he intends to make the cuts permanent. Will our unions do anything to stop this? These attacks on wages and benefits are incremental and cumulative; a failure to act now will result in further erosion of pensions, wages, benefits, and working conditions for California’s public workers. The Governor asks us for a two-tier medical and retirement system, robbing the new hires of the benefits we have won over the years. This plans destroys worker unity.
The global economic crisis is not the result of a few bad players on Wall Street getting careless with mortgages and derivatives. Nor is it going away soon. We are witnessing a structural crisis; our archaic mode of production is in a state of decay. In the West, it derives its profits from speculation rather than production; witness the chronic unemployment (12.5% in CA) and downturn in manufacturing jobs on the heels of the jobless recovery following the last recession (2001).
The attack on public workers here is driven by the same crisis faulted for the austerity and retrenchment being imposed on working class people and the public sector globally. In Europe, unlike California, the workers are fighting back. Our unions offer no leadership; real fighting unions are needed to unite California’s 1.5 million public workers to defend public services and pensions through mass strike actions similar to those taken by workers in France, Portugal, Greece, and other countries, while building solidarity through joint actions across the state and nation, and internationally.
Today’s crop of labor fakers, who run the show in public worker unions, place all their faith in the courts and in Democratic politicians, and none in the creativity, strength, and democratic mobilization of the rank and file. Instead of organizing members to fight back, they have been peddling the bosses’ line that workers must “share the pain.” The furloughs are a de facto lock-out, yet our union’s mis-leaders ignore the no lock-out clause in our MOUs. Instead, they accept furloughs as the status quo, and refuse to call a strike over this blatant contract violation.
While we are locked out and losing 15% of our pay, we see the fat cats living large off the financial shenanigans that ultimately burst their speculative bubbles. We see them running off with our livelihood as they sold off the productive economy and pilfered everything they could into their portfolios. As for the Democrats, whom we (labor) helped put in office with our unions’ funds and members’ efforts, all they do is shrug and say, “Well, we all have to live within our means; you can’t get blood from a stone.” Panicked by the anti-tax minority in the legislature, they lay down and die; a pathetic majority incapable of meeting the basic needs of the majority of the state. Workers, students, the poor, immigrants, and recipients of public services are being thrown under the bus. Yet the Democrats still count on our union leaders to deliver our votes on election day, because they have fooled us into believing we have nowhere else to go.
The governor recently redoubled his attack, threatening to make our pay cuts permanent while he protects tax loopholes and writes new tax exemptions for his rich buddies. He is testing the mettle of the working class, not just for his corporate and conservative base in California, but for the ruling class of the entire nation. If he is able to impose permanent cuts here without a fight-back from organized labor, the door will be open for similar attacks on workers everywhere. Just as the furloughs spread from California across the nation, if the governor gets his way, other state and local governments will follow in cutting pay and benefits by 15-20%. The plan, as expressed by governments and market makers across the globe, is to cut the public sector to the quick.
Why? With the reduction of manufacturing, profit is no longer produced here in the U.S. Rather, the speculative financial industry chases its own tail for profits derived from selling off our country’s productive capacity. The economy is no longer based on a strong foundation of profitable industry, employing workers who in turn consume the fruits of their labor. Unemployed and underpaid workers cannot and will not act as consumers, buying goods so as to drive up production. Who will put people back to work and get us our wages back?
Right now, no one is fighting for the average worker, the unemployed, and the furloughed. Quite the contrary: the politicians, management, and the union hacks are all united in an effort to keep the rank and file quiet and get them to accept the retrenchment. We have endured a 15% pay cut for 18 months, and now the governor expects us to return to work for less pay! “Come back to work, and work for free.” What is this: post-Soviet Russia? WHY AREN’T OUR PAID STAFF PREPARING FOR A FIGHT-BACK?
We need a real fighting union based on a democratically mobilized rank and file, not a bunch of sycophants who cravenly deliver our vote to the Democrats each election cycle with nothing to show for it. A fighting union would recognize the structural causes of the crisis and adjust its strategy and tactics appropriately. A fighting union would lead workers to build our own workers’ party based on our own organizations.
When the first furlough was imposed, the leaders of the California Association of Professional Scientists (CAPS) were asked, “What is to stop the governor from imposing more furlough days?” CAPS responded that their lawsuits would do the trick. Well, we all know how that turned out. Within a few months, we had lost 15% of our paycheck and two paid holidays! And what did the unions do? They responded with another lawsuit! Workers were not mobilized; meetings were not held; all faith was put in the courts.
A fighting union would place no faith in the courts; the courts would have been back-up plan B, C, D, or E. In a fighting union, plan A would be to put union staff and resources into the field to fill assembly halls across the state with 1.5 million public workers. A fighting union would be holding regular, democratically run organizing meetings to galvanize the membership at every job site, unit by unit, cubicle by cubicle, into rank-and-file committees ready to take action in a unified manner! A fighting union would build inter-union action committees, and link our plight to that of the public we serve as well as to the public education sector, the unemployed, and workers in private industry, who are also hurting. A fighting union would use the authority and strength of the organized workers to throw down the gauntlet and tell the governor and his puppet masters: WE DO THE WORK! DON’T MESS WITH US! WE CAN AND WILL SHUT THIS STATE DOWN!
As for SEIU, the biggest union, it held a strike authorization vote last summer that passed by 73% of those voting. The overwhelming sentiment of the workers was for action; so what did SEIU do? They asked us to put up lawn signs that said “STATE EMPLOYEE AND PROUD OF IT.” They caved in to the anti-labor campaign of the media which tries to convince us that the working class of California hates us for having a job with decent benefits (something everyone deserves). SEIU also managed to muster 3,000 of its members for a March on Sacramento. Considering that there are 30,000 SEIU workers within one mile of the capital, it is obvious that the membership was not at all convinced that the leaders had a winning strategy. Less than 10% of the Sacramento work force joined in the demonstration, and many of those who made up the 3,000 were bused in from around the State. At the rally, the SEIU’s tactic was to have workers make hundreds of cellphone calls to the legislature, a useless endeavor if there ever was one. There were a few sporadic, seemingly spontaneous, actions, particularly at EDD, DMV, and CDPH, where workers took to the streets in protest—largely of their own volition, not under the leadership of the unions. Those actions reflected the members’ deep frustration with a leadership that has nothing to offer but cutbacks and faith in the courts.
The attacks on public workers, education, and programs that serve the public have not been met with any serious response by our unions. State workers in California pay dues to close to a dozen outfits that pose as unions but are in actuality agents of the ruling class, enforcing the bankers’ and speculators’ crisis on the backs of public workers and the poor.
The unions we have today are incapable of, and not interested in, organizing and mobilizing the membership. They have accepted the status quo of labor-management peace while they enforce the cuts by demobilizing the membership. Separated during the Jerry Brown governorship into 12 different unions, state workers have lost the unity that one big union affords.
Workers have little choice if we want to hold on to our wages and benefits. We need to replace the leadership of our unions with rank and file leaders who are willing to break with the politicians and who intend to use the courts as an adjunct, not as the the main strategy for winning our rights. If our current unions do not stand up to these attacks and cannot be reformed, we will have no choice but to decertify the pseudo-unions and replace them with new organizations. Real unions are essential in order to do what we must do in order to win; that is, promote working class unity, organize the unorganized (read: contract workers), and build solidarity with the recipients of the programs we run. To stop the attacks, the unions need a class struggle perspective, which abandons cozy labor-management relations that only serve the bosses and the entrenched union bureaucracy. Only a mobilized membership can win!
• For democratic rank-and-file committees to drive out the labor hacks and build fighting unions. Remove and replace the union mis-leadership! Write democracy into the by-laws!
• For labor to break with the Democrats and Republicans. Only our own candidates can represent our interests. Run labor candidates and build a fighting worker/labor party! To create a workers’ government!
• For labor action to restore our contracts, win back our lost pay, defeat plans to increase our share of pension contributions, and ensure regular COLAs.
• Organize the unorganized! End permanent contract positions. Hire contract workers as state workers. END THE TWO-TIER BENEFIT SYSTEM FOR NEW HIRES!